‘The Soundtrack Show’ knows film music – and it gets it, too

I’ve been a fan of David Collins’ podcasting work since the days of the tremendous Star Wars Oxygen. In addition to broadening my appreciation of the music of John Williams, the show gave me food for thought on a series of Star Wars music columns I wrote back in 2015Oxygen was a perfect mix of accessible and informative content, making music theory and analysis as approachable as possible.

I say “was” because Star Wars Oxygen‘s parent show, Rebel Force Radio, came under fire for toxic comments about gender and fandom earlier this year. In addition to losing a panel hosting gig at the Star Wars Celebration convention, Rebel Force Radio lost a great deal of good will. All of this was compounded by the outlet’s indignant response to the collective discourse, which was reason enough for me to stop supporting their content.

The downside to the controversy was that Star Wars Oxygen effectively went dark. It should be noted that David Collins was never directly associated with the comments, and by all accounts he proceeded to distance himself from Rebel Force Radio. Nevertheless, I was very bummed out that one of my favorite podcasts probably wasn’t coming back.

So it was to my great surprise that Collins would return to podcasting, this time partnering with How Stuff Works on a solo format. Collins’ new show, The Soundtrack Show, does everything Star Wars Oxygen did: it provides historical context, theory, and analysis of the film scores it features, and while Collins would begin his run by distilling his Star Wars work into shorter digests, he soon branched out into other franchises and composers.

As of late, The Soundtrack Show has gotten into the spirit of the season, highlighting music from horror and other October-friendly films. An episode on the music of Halloween breaks down John Carpenter’s effective minimalism. The show’s primer on Universal Studios’ monster movies is a staggeringly concise piece of film music history, calling out the presence of Swan Lake in early films like Dracula and The Mummy and analyzing Franz Waxman’s precedent-setting work on Bride of Frankenstein.

Yesterday, I listened to Collins dive into Elmer Berstein’s score for Ghostbusters, how it blends together horrific and comedic motifs. In the first episode (yes, this show is that thorough), Collins illustrates how the Ghostbusters’ jaunty main riff can sound scary or upbeat depending on the arrangement. He also uses some quick theory to point out why the demonic theme for the film’s uber-demon Gozer terrified me as a kid.

What’s most impressive about The Soundtrack Show is its attention to scoring details. Early in the movie, Bill Murray stages a faux investigation of Sigourney Weaver’s apartment as a cheap pick-up attempt. In a spirited bit of improvisation, he jingles two keys on the piano. Bernstein takes a comedic aside from Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman, jokingly jingling piano keys, and turns that moment into its own motif in his score.

“They hate that” is a hilarious aside in the film, but Collins points out how Bernstein actually repurposes two-notes of bullshit into a miniature theme for Venkman. I’ve seen Ghostbusters dozens of times and never noticed that once. Details like that can still blow your hair back, especially in a classic movie that’s often renowned for its nothing-ness.

A major pet peeve of mine is analyzing film music without the context in which it’s featured, and had I only listened to Bernstein’s music in isolation, I never could have picked up on this aspect. The Soundtrack Show never forgets that the music it features is in service of something else. That element alone makes it worth listening. Its host’s pedigree and endless positivity are an added bonus.

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“The most self-defeating 5 months of your life”

As my friend Sam put it to me last week, fantasy baseball is maybe “the most self-defeating 5 months of your life.”

He wasn’t just taking a dig at me either. Sam’s the league commissioner. Managing the draft and overseeing any trades throughout the year add to the absurdities in the life of a fantasy baseball manager. Crunching numbers, sorting statistics, reading blogs, etc. In their only similarity to the real thing, fantasy sports are a zero-sum game, and in the age of the internet, extra information comes at a premium. By one rough calculation, I spent over 40 hours on fantasy baseball this year.

Why would anyone do this to themselves? One thing I’ve learned about myself in recent years is that I have a noxious combination of a competitive streak and a habit of being a sore loser. So speaking personally, winning twenty-something weeks (plus a seeded playoff tournament) represents a weird, digital validation for the time spent fretting over whether to keep a struggling veteran outfielder or exchange him for a high-risk, high-reward pitcher.

In microcosm, small transactions like that seem ridiculous, but in the scope of a fantasy baseball season, the “game of streaks” takes shape. In April, I lost my starting shortstop to a torn ulnar collateral ligament and prior to the season’s midpoint, my first baseman was utterly lost at the plate. Later in the year, my third baseman was in and out of the lineup with shoulder problems. Oh, and that high-risk, high-reward pitcher? His stock plummeted when he was moved to the bullpen.

Of course, those are just the negatives. I also drafted a starting pitcher who would end up a Cy Young contender, and my lineup woes were (mostly) offset by two potential MVPs this year.

None of this really encapsulates the rollercoaster experience of checking progress week-by-week, let alone day-by-day. Our league uses a head-to-head categories system, where every week your team faces off with another in 10 statistics or “categories.” Expected categories like home runs, strikeouts, and stolen bases are all there, but our league also opts for the less conventional ones like On Base Percentage and Quality Pitching Starts. At the end of each week, your team’s results in those categories are compared to that week’s opponent, and “wins” and “losses” are assigned based on who did better in each one. So, if your players stole more bases but fared worse in every other category, your record that week would be 1-9-0 — because ties happen, too.

After securing the top playoff spot over a dominant summer in which I lost to an opponent just once in an eight-week stretch, my team imploded. My red-hot lineup had cooled down, and a once-dominant pitching staff of undervalued arms was now showing why so many league-mates had slept on them.

I ended up taking third place this year with a narrow 6-4 victory. For me, that’s a pretty big deal considering how much recent teams of the past had been plagued by regression and injury. That’s the other thing with fantasy sports: no matter whom you draft or which player you trade for, luck will always be your MVP. Had my final starting pitcher not pitched a complete game shutout on a Sunday afternoon, I’d have been toast.

Then again, it’s not really about winning. Dan Okrent, on of the Founding Fathers of Fantasy Sports, never won a season in his baseball league. Our fantasy baseball league has been around for nine years, and that’s really why I do it. That’s the real reason I subject my anxiety to a barrage of spreadsheets every year. Because it gives me a chance to, however tangentially, stay in touch with one these people. Performances fluctuate; the league is the constant.

 

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Just a number

The year I turned 12, my parents told me “This is it.” We were okay to celebrate birthdays at home with my sister but after this year, there would be No More Parties. Given my hormonal changes at the time and general social awkwardness, let’s just say I wasn’t designed to handle this well. Regrettably, I spent most of my very last birthday party holed up in my bedroom, avoiding grandparents and cousins and neighbors, too scared to confront this final celebration of birth and also very ashamed of that fact.

The regret later that evening is what has stayed with me. I remember confessing to my mom, crying, that I wanted a do-over, that I was ready to really enjoy it the next year. It’s a silly reaction to have to a birthday, and birthday parties in general are something that I tend to hold little interest in. After all, age is just a number, albeit one that remains “a pretty good predictor of when you’ll die.”

My 12 year-old self was focused on learning the opening riff to “Dammit” and reading Redwall, not his own mortality.  Despite turning 30 this week, I’m not really sweating it either. In recent years, I realized that birthdays feel like bummers because of how I was valuing them. I would always focus on the age as big, fat number. A candle-lit mile marker reminding me that I just finished another lap. You’ve been here this long, what have you got to show? I would fixate on the days themselves instead of how to use them. I would joke that “There’s nothing to look forward to after turning 21” or ask “Now that I can rent a car, what’s left?” Then I’d get stuck in ruts and yes, sometimes those ruts would fall on a day in September.

Thinking about life in terms of years is pretty useless and for my money, only reinforces that feeling of “FOMO,” that sinking anxiety that I wasn’t doing enough with my time. You’ve been here this long, what have you got to show? It’s a vicious cycle I have, thankfully, learned to break. Using my time differently has played a big part. In the past year, I’ve doubled down on learning Spanish. I’ve gotten back into playing music and reading and photography, and I’ve found a new appreciation for the outdoors. I am more patient. Of course, I also know that my mentality has to change, too. That’s the important part.

To dodge a dozen cliches, I’ve learned to value the day itself rather than some number. And that fear of missing out on life doesn’t always feel so present. This year, it wasn’t there at all.

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Go watch ‘Minding the Gap’ right now

Humble to the point of feeling effortless, Minding the Gap is one of the best documentaries to come out in years and easily one of 2018’s best films. Set in Rockford, IL, yet another American town with a shrinking population and a dying middle class, director Bing Liu combines his skate video archives with present day footage of several twenty-somethings — all of whom, as Liu would discover part-way through shooting the film, bear some kind or proximity to domestic abuse.

The thoroughness and grace on display here, much like The Blood is at the Doorstep, is staggering. For his debut feature, Liu compiles and sorts through that he and Joshua Altman edit into something so empathetic, so transcendent of the form. “Magic hour” sequences catch skaters Zack and Keire gliding down parking structures and over train tracks. Nathan Halpern and Chris Ruggiero’s lifting piano seems to give an invisible oomph to kickflips and ollies. There are scenes here that, as Filmspotting‘s Adam Kempenaar and Josh Larsen point out, are as lyrical as anything this side of Terrence Malick.

A big part of that is Liu’s humble approach, showing us Keire’s tweener status as a person of color in intimate glances and letting Zack ultimately damn himself for startling revelations about his own family life. And Liu is just as vulnerable as one of his own subjects, eventually confronting his stepfather’s abuse in a direct, gut-wrenching sit down with his mother. In a KCRW interview, Liu talks about the relative importance of going “meta” with the documentary form and in hindsight, the film’s inward elements feel inevitable.

A cursory reading might suggest the skateboarding on display here is just a clever ruse, that all along, Minding the Gap lies in wait, to ambush with deep, painful truths. That’s not the case. After watching this — for a second time — with my girlfriend last night, I entertained the idea that Minding the Gap‘s title was about paying attention to one’s distance to their past. I don’t know if it matters how literally one interprets it, though. What’s clear is that this is very much a film about where people have come from and more importantly, where they’re headed.

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Dissecting frogs

“Explaining humor is a lot like dissecting a frog, you learn a lot in the process, but in the end you kill it.”

-Mark Twain

I saw The Nun last night. It is not good. There’s little payoff to a threadbare setup with some questionable storytelling choices, but at least I got to see the weaponized blood of Jesus Christ.

Quality had little to do with its #1 box office performance this weekend. The Nun also had a semi-controversial marketing stunt in its favor, not to mention word-of-mouth generated from The Conjuring‘s immensely successful “cinematic universe.” And yet despite the bonafides, The Nun only earned a (contextually) low “C” audience grade from Cinemascore.

This has me thinking about what we value in a horror movie. I used to believe that the lack of an explanation is what ultimately made something scary. The Blair Witch Project doesn’t explain anything outside of its three cast members’ efforts to shoot a documentary, and it has remained profoundly unsettling for two decades. And yet 2018’s Hereditary — both a frightening observation of grief and a nod to 60s & 70s horror — peels away its occult layers for plenty of answers, and that’s a movie that’s stuck with me for months.

The Nun doesn’t bother to expand on what is happening or why it’s happening. Like these Conjuring films at their worst, it deals in cheap scares, squandering the potential of genuinely creepy character design. Horror may be a lot like humor in that understanding its mechanics might be less important than the reaction itself.

It’s worth noting that while Hereditary may continue to terrify me, it scored a “D+” from audiences. Everybody seems to value their scares a little differently, and with more Conjuring movies likely on the way, I just hope I can meet Warner Bros. somewhere in the middle.

One thousand emails

This morning I received an email from Krakower Media Group I wasn’t expecting. It announced the passing of the PR group’s founder, Beth Krakower, after a two-year long battle with breast cancer. Via a statement from Krakower Group:

It is with deep sadness we share that our dear friend and leader, Beth Krakower, has passed away after a nearly two year battle with breast cancer.

Beth was an innovator with a brilliant mind for marketing and business, and an unrivaled passion for music and helping music creators. She built the Krakower Group to serve composers, music supervisors, record labels and music festivals around the world. Today, the global music community, as well as her family and many friends and colleagues mourn her loss. Beth was generous, kind, and fearless in the pursuit of publicity and recognition for clients. Her wit, kindness and compassion were some of her most enduring traits, as any who knew her will attest. As a boss, mentor, and friend, she was second to none.

The Krakower Group will continue to support and champion our clients, and Beth’s legacy. To each and every person whose life she touched, we extend our sincere sympathies.

I never met Beth in person, and my interactions with her were infrequent at best; a request for an interview with a composer here or a link to a soundtrack there. Many have written tributes to Beth, some by other writers, some by composers she represented, and some by humbled admirers.

In what seems to have been a shared experience for those who have written about film music is that Beth was an essential part of their business. I know that I share that experience. From my early days writing about scores at the now-defunct Sound on Sight, Beth Krakower was the first rep my editor Ricky da Conceicao put me in touch with. In the years since, I’ve received what had to have been over 1,000 emails from the Krakower Group, emails that Beth and her team undoubtedly worked incredibly hard on. I have to admit, I didn’t always devote time to reading them. I’m sure, in some sense, I was just another email address, too. And yet without her work, I don’t know that I would have the same passion for movie music that I enjoy to this day.

I’m not sure there’s a specific lesson I’m working through here. Maybe it’s how trivial the entertainment industry feels in comparison to human life. Or maybe it’s that anything, no matter how small, can still have an impact on someone.

Let’s talk about talking about plot holes

Patrick H Willems’ YouTube channel has quickly become one of my favorites. He provides incisive commentary and analysis on film and pop culture and, most importantly, he does so with a positive, encouraging attitude.

Usually.

His latest video, “SHUT UP ABOUT PLOT HOLES,” isn’t so nice about its message, but that’s okay because the message is a critical one. In the video, Patrick delves into what he views as common misunderstandings about what a plot hole is. More importantly though, he elaborates on why plot hole-hunting has become so commonplace, suggesting that the internet and, more specifically, click-bait, is to blame. The instant-gratification of channels like CinemaSins and listicles from BuzzFeed and Cracked have laid the foundation for a shallow culture invested in surface-level commentary.

I’m far less interested in what a movie is about than how it is about it, and Patrick’s theory rings true to me. I actually wrote about this very idea earlier this year. Patrick also got me thinking about film as a platform for engagement. Are movies as engaging as other media in 2018? It’s an open question. TV shows extend their drama over multiple episodes, in essence, extending our experiences with their twists and turns. On a quantitative level, having one’s heart strings tugged for 13 hours as opposed to 90 minutes is bound to be more affecting for many people. Not to mention, binge-watching culture has created low-stakes participation on the viewer’s end. Do I go to bed not knowing how Walter White gets out of this? Or do I watch one more and find out?

Video games blow up this whole idea of engagement; it’s a medium whose success depends on your involvement. And oh, the success. Worldwide movie revenue closed in on $40 billion last year, but games made almost triple that.

What does any of this have to do with plot holes? Again, it’s engagement. Cultural expectations and sensibilities change over time. The idea of a radio drama seems antiquated now, but think about podcasts. Both provide audio-based entertainment. The difference is that one encapsulates choice, encapsulates this idea of engagement. I can pick what I want to listen to, when I want to listen to it. I can even choose how I want to listen to it, adjusting the speed, fast-forwarding through ads, or, on some apps, trimming the silence. Podcasts can exist on our terms in many ways that movies cannot.

It’s important to recognize that movies are a comparatively passive experience. You sit, and you watch. There’s a lot of good in that paradigm. First Reformed is a recent example of a movie that uses its lulls and slow pacing to directly challenge the viewer’s relationship with the film’s ideas. Movies don’t need to be anything other than what they are. But make no mistake, plot hole culture is the result of a generation and its struggle to feel involved with them. These are growing pains — hopefully short-lived ones.