E.R. Live! And Other Comments...
by Christopher Walsh
E.R. has regained my trust with its highly hyped -- and highly effective -- "E.R. Live" episode, performed live twice, once for each coast. It's a sometimes uneven but great show, with a strong and talented ensemble cast and cinematic use of sights and sounds.
When I heard that the live show -- about a documentary crew in the hospital -- also would include live music, I was a little skeptical. This seemed a perfect time to show how a program can work without any music, which can be done; NBC's dramatic Friday-night show Homicide has pretty much no original music* outside the opening credits. (Homicide in fact limits its episodic scoring to idiosyncratic use of music video-type montages, like an ironic use of Joan Osborne's "One Of Us" last season. I'm trying to track down the makers of the program to learn why music is used in this way.)
On first viewing, therefore, I found the music was partly a distraction. It first appeared (in the West Coast version, at least) when a choking cancer patient is unable to say that he doesn't want to be resuscitated; the music then ended rather abruptly as another cameraman interviewed a janitor. The second musical entrance was sold better, with a man wandering the hospital playing his drumstick; this beat served as the basis for starting the cue (and got a shouted response from Anthony Edwards' Dr. Greene to stop that drummer's noise). Later, the E.R. piano music was used when Dr. Carter (Noah Wyle) lost a patient and got chewed out by Greene. These three cues spanned the typical use of music on E.R.
On a second viewing on tape, I decided that the music worked to make the program less of a documentary, which seems to have been partly the makers' intention, and place the episode somewhere between its own reality and "real" reality -- the old "real life/reel life" struggle of dramatic presentations. Apparently the E.R. producers wanted a quasi-documentary feel for this special, as opposed to the closer-to-documentary feel of the famous black-and-white M*A*S*H episode. E.R. stayed cinematic with the use of Martin Davich's music ensemble, which is orchestrated to cut through a thick mix of sound effects and dialogue. The flying-by-the-seat-of-the-pants production took away E.R.'s usual balance of dialogue and sound, but that added to the dizziness of the hour that critics have said made the live program work.
In the end, this was an experiment that probably will never be repeated exactly, but added to the excitement of one of TV's best shows and again demonstrated how good television can be when it tries... as it too rarely does.**
G.I. Jane, and Jones, and tunes, and Hynde...
I'm glad that the Ridley Scott-directed G.I. Jane opened well, and has done respectable if not massive business. This film about Demi Moore joining the Navy SEALs is an intense good time, with generous bursts of harsh Naval humor in the first half. (Vulgar sidebar: in the Navy there is the concept of Fighter Pilot Sympathy, which basically is no sympathy at all. Fighter pilots are, in my experience, very funny but not about to be sympathetic. If you ask a Navy pilot why this is, the response is only that in the Naval dictionary, 'sympathy' lies between 'shit' and 'syphilis.'*** SEALs are even more brutal.)
Besides being another way to get psyched for the even more muscular Starship Troopers, G.I. Jane balances seriousness and fun in a way we don't usually see in Scott's work. This mix helps the story's verisimilitude; we have to accept the movie's reality and the doses of humor and emotion help to sell that reality, that feeling of "this is how the first American woman might reach combat duty." One day that will happen, one way or another, and we'll see how that pans out.
Though the film probably is overscored, Trevor Jones's music and the songs provided many smile-worthy moments. It is as if G.I. Jane deliberately starts off with Jones imitating that "Zimmer Inc." orchestral wash (the opening music felt like a rehash of the semi-serious scoring in The Rock), then have the score work past that, in a musical struggle that plays up the struggle onscreen. Jones has some melodies that fight to be heard over the more standard material: this struck me most prominently in the early montage of SEAL training on the sunny beach. Straining to hear those melodies helped to focus my attention and get me more involved.
Meanwhile, the grab-bag of rock, heavy metal and even opera (!) on the soundtrack makes for additional fun; most of the songs are used for a clear purpose, like the first piece of up-tempo rock that plays ironically over a grueling race. And the opera fragment is great for screwing with the weary minds of the trainees.
Finally, my last piece of gushing: Chrissie Hynde, perennial front for The Pretenders, makes a welcome return with two songs, one for the Demi-shaves-her-head scene and another used twice late in the film. Hynde effectively adds to the film's heart, especially with the sincere song used at the end. Beyond that, what can I say? I've always liked Hynde, but saying that doesn't add much in the context of a review. Does her song work as well for people who don't know or like her music? I'll admit it; I don't know.
G.I. Jane probably won't be a cinematic milestone, though it is a good movie. Maybe all of the above falls into the "bite me, it's fun!" category. Or, alternatively, as Demi Moore herself hollers in Jane... but I won't give that away.****
Smiling Fascism in Men In Black?
I had a couple of unusual reactions when I saw this mostly worthy summer blockbuster. I actually was glad that the film will beget a sequel, as the concept seems broad enough to keep on going and going--which is a more positive way of saying I didn't think Men in Black delivered all it could have. Plus MIB II will give Linda Fiorentino more to do as L(aurel) than she had here.*****
(By the way, perhaps congratulations should go out to the filmmakers, who didn't seem to get uptight about letting Fiorentino's character show friendly, possibly romantic interest in Will Smith as J. I say "perhaps" because the ending can be seen as nipping that possibility in the bud; having Laurel take up one of the big guns and become a Woman in Black keeps her involved in any future stories...but remember that most veteran MIBs didn't seem to show any interest in sex at all. To risk reading too much into this, the ending can be read as making her less threatening to people who would have been uptight about her earlier. Men in Black still goes farther than, say, the film version of The Pelican Brief -- the two leads were romantic in the book, platonic in the film -- but pop culture can go farther in the future.)
But as I walked out of the theater with a smile on my face, I started thinking "I enjoyed that. And at least the Men in Black have our best interests in mind." This thought, however, surprised me the more I took it apart. Here is an agency that knows what would be the most startling secret of our age, but they hide the alien presence on Earth because they know this would drive the masses nuts. "A person is smart," as K [Tommy Lee Jones] puts it. "People are panicky and dumb." To support this, K then says how people used to "know" that the earth was a flat plate at the center of the universe, but doesn't mention that these misguided beliefs were challenged by the best minds in our history. In Men In Black, like in Close Encounters of the Third Kind******, alien life is treated as a dirty secret, not likely to emerge. The MIB can therefore represent what is almost a smiling form of fascism; they lie and hide the truth to control the masses, but it's all right because A) they care for the rest of us and B) it's better that we don't know. It's a variation on Spielberg's frequent lack of trust in humanity; CE3K paints a truly dim view of people, where Richard Dreyfuss is for all purposes "saved" while the other five billion of us are abandoned, remaining stuck in our provincial ruts. MIB has a more positive mood than CE3K, but it still believes in a vast, immature and perhaps unredeemable majority. While Will Smith does counter this thinking early on, the questioning aspect of his character gets lost; by the end we cannot tell if J's feelings have changed. (Hopefully this will be tackled again in MIB II.) And this seeming altruism is more likely an attempt at self-preservation; if aliens were out in the open, MIB would be a glorified passport office--goodbye cool guns and transforming cars. Maybe I'm being cynical...or maybe I'm not being cynical enough.
My last strange reaction is that, even though I am a massive fan of Danny Elfman, his music here simply didn't do much for me.******* That in itself is not unprecedented, though even when he's not at his best, Elfman redeems himself with his sense of musical structure. (Darkman and its two made-for-video sequels illustrate this. While not one of Elfman's most successful efforts, all of the film's cues still have thoughtful musical arcs with beginnings, middles and ends. On the other hand, Randy Miller, using the same themes and similar instrumentation in the sequels, just blasts along underneath the scenes, with less structure. It makes a difference.)
What was strange was that when the film reveals the marble-sized galaxy with that choral cue, I actually felt that the music trivialized the concept.
Okay, maybe I was getting too wrapped up in the film, but think about it; how do you musically portray something as vast and beautiful as a galaxy you can hold in your hand? Probably you can't, not in a realistic way, maybe not even in the off-kilter context of this film. ([The film version of] Contact makes better use of a similar concept with its long opening, scored with silence, then the radio racket, then the static, then silence again.) But the film probably couldn't have gotten away with leaving the scene unscored, either; the moment cries out for music. Certainly Bernard Herrmann, faced with that scene, would have scored it. As Doug Adams said, MIB moves as fast as a Simpsons episode, and Elfman didn't have much time to make a point. He therefore more consistently scored reactions, which can be grasped in music: we hear a cool "walking" theme for J and K because these guys must be cool. We hear children's chimes for the alien baby because all babies are cute. And we hear a vast choral piece when Laurel, in awe, is face-to-face with a hundred billion stars. These are all contexts we can understand... not the most ground-breaking use of music, but it does the job.********
* I wasn't listening closely enough. Homicide: Life on the Street did have original music, close to "musique concrete" experimental stuff, but there, and I noticed once I started paying attention. Douglas Cuomo was the composer. He later did more straightforward, closer-to-jazzy work for the science fiction action show Now and Again.
** Ultimately, though, I decided the story and attitude of E.R.'s live episode wasn't followed up well by the rest of the season. It seemed to be setting up for a season-long theme: The E.R.'s now vulnerable, since Dr. Greene got attacked in the hospital the previous season. And other stories not tying into that got told instead. The episode was, in the end, too detachable from the rest of the season, which as an E.R. fan at the time I found disappointing.
*** I got this from Dad. After the article went live he called me and said, deadpan, "Boy, am I proud that my vulgarities have been preserved online." He was amused, at least.
**** "SUCK MY DICK!!!!"
***** Nope. It didn't.
****** I come clean: I no longer like Close Encounters.
******* The score's really grown on me since then, though.
******** I later decided the music for the galaxy sounds a little like a parody of James Horner's early-80s science fiction scoring: throw in some cymbal crashes and it's almost The Wrath of Khan!