Music that has no roots in a film, though its creator does.
John Carpenter has been on my mind these past few days. I’ve been brainstorming up a bit of short fiction I wanted to share here to analyze the relationship between my immediate settings and the stories I create. While I have a sense of what I want to do, the rhythm’s still missing. The piece can’t afford to build too quickly; it’ll need a slow build to grip the readers. I need the readers to see the menace, know it’s coming, shake their fists at the protagonist as they cry, “He’s right behind you!”
Aha! Just like Carpenter’s Halloween. There’s a movie without flash or whimsy: everything’s done on a shoe-string budget while everyone gives their 200%. This is the movie that made Jamie Lee Curtis the Scream Queen, after all. And Carpenter’s score is legendary, as is his method. (“I’m the cheapest, and I know I’ll get it done on time,” He said. Sort of. Look, ask Bo, he’s read all about him.) Carpenter uses his synthesizer to score nearly all his movies. Sure, his melodies are simple, but they cement themselves into the audience’s memory, and fast. The theme for Halloween is nothing short of iconic, right up there with Superman and Batman.
But like John Williams, this can mean that the music lets a writer think of nothing else but Michael Myers walking down a shadowed street.
In the last few years Carpenter has produced two new albums of instrumental music totally unconnected to his films. They still keep his minimal style of percussion, synthesizer, and occasional piano. The result? Desired aural atmosphere without the Pavlovian reaction. Every track smacks of 80s: arcade tournaments and puffy vests, rolled-up denim and disco fries. Occasionally Kurt Russell in an eye patch appears in one’s imagination, but he’s too smart to interrupt the story at hand.
So, over the next week I’m going to see how far these albums can take a character I created years ago. He’s been kicking the table for his own story, but I was never sure what to do for a novel. Well, problem solved now.
I originally wanted this post to be about the importance of unique characters. That when characters overlap, you have to cut whomever’s the most superfluous. Considering the current love of the Marx Brothers in our house, I was going to use Zeppo Marx as an example.
For those even more of a Philistine than me, the Marx Brothers began as a vaudeville group put together by their mother. All could sing, dance, play instruments, and verbally spar like nobody’s business. When the talkies came a’callin’, Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo left Broadway to perform in a filmed version of Cocoanuts and four other musical comedies for Paramount. When they transferred to the MGM film studio, Zeppo dropped from the act. The films they did for MGM, most notably Night at the Opera, made boatloads of money, so therefore the loss of Zeppo must have improved the films. Right?
Bo’s adored the Marx Brothers since the age of 6. Introducing them to the kids has been a huge treat for him. Bash in particular adores the music segments, and can even mimic Harpo’s faces during a piano duet in The Big Store:
I showed Bo my old post. He shook his head. “See, you can’t…no. Look.” He crossed his arms. Books, films, and documentaries played on fast-forward across his eyes. “It’s true that Zeppo doesn’t really stand out. You’re right that he plays the connection to the flimsy excuse of a plot in those movies. But when he’s gone, they still have a pretty boy for a lead. The three Marx Brothers are tighter as a unit, yeah, but they’re not the real stars of the movies anymore. They’re just a part of the story, and the stories suck. There’s a reason I never made you sit through Day at the Races.”
“So,” I hold off Biff and his giant metal eighteen-wheeler, “it’s the character-driven story vs. the plot-driven story?”
Bo considered. “Yes, I suppose so.” And then he went on about a lot of other nuances and exceptions, but I’ve had wine, so I don’t feel like typing all that.
The point is, even a character who doesn’t seem to stand out can have an impact on a story; it’s just that impact may not be felt until its absence. The Marx Brothers are all about fine-crafted comedy: perfectly-timed stunts, word-play that’ll make a priest blush, and music performances any obnoxious toddler will watch in blessed peace. Each Marx Brother contributed particular gifts: Groucho’s wordplay, Chico’s music, and Harpo’s innocent deviltry. While all the brothers had talents in all the corners, each picked one to dominate. Sure, Harpo played piano with Chico sometimes, and Chico sometimes sparred words with Groucho, and Groucho sometimes joined Harpo in the physical schtick, but these cross-overs never outlast the bit at hand.
And then, there’s Zeppo. He was just as talented as the other three: sing, dance, play, banter. All of it. He was a hit with them on Broadway, even though he never cared for the attention. But the triumvirate of comedy–physical, verbal, musical–were filled in by his brothers. What unique trait did he bring that they couldn’t?
The eye-candy, of course!
Yup, they made him the pretty boy character. He was the one who kept whatever passed for a story going. When he was given a chance to actually be funny, like in Animal Crackers, he’s great, but otherwise he’s just…there. Several scenes pass between Zeppo appearances in the films, and he’s never really missed. Groucho’s foil is usually Margaret Dumont, so even the straight-man role is filled. After Duck Soup and the announcement of MGM “acquiring” the comedic group, Zeppo took advantage and left the group. A tighter group should lead to tighter comedy, only it doesn’t. Why?
Because as Bo said, the MGM films don’t highlight the comedy.
Therein lies the dilemma.
MGM was all about appealing to the broadest audience possible. This meant expanding the films to be more than just Marx Brothers’ antics; the movies had to contain a stronger story and popular music numbers, too. MGM proved their point with the massive box office successes of their three Marx Brothers films, but any fan of the Paramount films can see that the Marx Brothers simply aren’t allowed to be as funny in the MGM films. Story was given priority at the sacrifice of the characters. When one looks at the Paramount films, one’ll find plots little Bash could out-write in a single afternoon. The comedy, though, is king. The four Marx Brothers have free reign with their banter, music acts, and physical antics, which makes for hilarious viewing every time. One does not watch Duck Soup for its political drama; one watches it for Chico and Groucho verbally sparring over a nut stand. One does not watch Monkey Business for the drama of gang rivalry; one watches it for Harpo driving steamship’s crew crazy.
As writers, we must always be conscious of how many characters we have in play. We must be wary of repetitive characters, of too many or too few characters. We must also remember that the changes we make with our characters can have a subtle ripple effect throughout the rest of the story. Sure, the three Marx Brothers were a tighter comedy unit, but their films did not in any way improve. The four Marx Brothers make one easily forget about the need for plot, but one’s always left wondering, “What’s with Zeppo?”
When you choose to revise your cast, think carefully what impact the absence(s) will have. Don’t just study the plot for new rips; study what binds the characters, too. The needed mending might not be noticeable at first, but once you spot it, the story won’t be the same until you make it right.
The railway lines of Wisconsin are old and fragile, like the veins on a grandfather’s hand. Few are used for freight, even fewer for people. One runs parallel to the county highway I drive weekly to take Biff and Bash to school. Unable to work with a dead laptop, I milled about, catching a few lousy photos on that lousy grey day.
When Bo had decided to take a few days off, I told him I needed him to do more with the kids so I could work. I expected swathes of time to revise the website, write several chapters of Middler’s Pride, and establish realistic writing goals with essay revisions and book proposals. “I need BIG chunks of the day. Six to eight hours, at least,” I said. “Okay,” he said.
Well, guess what didn’t happen. Did I let Bo know it? You bet your ass I did. Every night: “I needed to get that done.” “You’ve got to handle the kids more.” “Can’t you take them out? I need to get stuff done.” “Dammit that should have been done by now.” The days sped by, and what happened? A little bit of reading, barely any writing. And of course, if lack of time wasn’t enough, both computers had to up and die.
Enough pictures. The wind hurt my cheeks like matchbox cars wielded by angry sons. Where was I even going to put these? It could be a week before we have a computer running properly at home. Never mind writing, how the hell was I going to teach?
Fuck never mind. Who was I kidding? Even when Bo had off of work, I couldn’t accomplish shit because the boys hoisted everything at me. How in Heaven and Hell did I think I could make a writer’s life for myself when my family needs ME, and needs me NOW. I may as well have picked up the rails at my feet, slung them over my shoulder, and plopped them by the Rock River to make a fun little bridge, perfect for a child’s adventure into another…
Stop it. The Motherhood Line never veers from its goal. Any car that runs its rails better be Mother-related, or it gets left on a siding to rot.
The lousy day turned to a lousy night. My black mood put Blondie on edge. She hovered on some invisible border, watching for an in. “Mommy, can I do the dishes?”
“No.” I didn’t even look at her as I clanked a new pile into the sink. “They’re fragile.”
“But I wanna help.”
Clank. Rinse. “You can help by keeping your brothers out of my hair.” Clank. Rinse.
She slid back to her chair, face down.
Bo came over from laundry. “I can do that,” he said with a hand full of clothes.
“What are you–” I snatched what was in his hand. “These can’t go together. This is a delicate, and this needs to go in a bag first.” Back to the clanking, rinsing. Thoughts washed in gunk that stuck fast: He PROMISED to help and he fucking DIDN’T, HE failed me, it’s HIS fault, I could have done more if Bo would have fucking stepped the fuck UP
Everything grew so rank inside I couldn’t even read to Biff and Bash. Instead, I complained about what never got done, what has to get done tomorrow by some miracle of God, that I was stupid to think I could even do this writing shit in the first place–
Bo rushed the kids to bed, hardly closing Blondie’s door before hauling me into the living room, kicking the boys’ Thomas trains aside to make room for my ass. “Stop. That. NOW.”
I rolled my eyes at him. He didn’t get it, of course.
“For the love of GOD, dear…look. Just…why don’t you go somewhere tomorrow and work. Do your website,” he practically growled the words, “do your writing. Get out and do it.”
Huh? He had wanted his last day off to be for the two of us. Mom was taking all three kids for the day–no small offer, I promise you.
I could just see it: me in a silent place, new computer all set to go, hours for my work…but…”Don’t you want to go out tomorrow?”
“YES! Of course I want to go out with you! We haven’t gone on a date since what, July? But…fuck you’ll think me an asshole…but why should we bother?” He tossed a piece of train track into the bin, such a loud THWACK would surely wake the kids, if they’re not up anyway. “All you’re going to think about is what you didn’t get done. That’s all you’re on.” THWACK. “It’s like you can’t see how far you’ve come in one year. I mean, you got the blessing of Pete Townshend. You get to use songs by The FUCKING Who for your story.” THWACK THWACK. “You’ve got thousands of people on both sides of the planet”–THWACK–“reading your stuff but all you look at is what you should have done by now. Like nothing you do is ever good enough.” He wiped his eyes on his sleeves as he shoved the bin of train tracks aside. “I believe in you, Jean. But it’s fucking hard when you don’t even believe in yourself.”
My mind and lungs froze on the formation of those words from his lips: I believe in you.
Never had Bo said those words. When I started this all in 2015 he saw it as something to quiet my whines about not writing. Whenever my motherhood/teacherhood/depression threatened to quash it, he would go silent, blink it off, wait for the threat to solve itself, or for me to solve it.
But today, Bo believes in my writing. My writing, and of all crazy things: me.
I had always thought this writer’s path, muddy, cold, and unknown, to be a lonely one. The further I’ve gone, the more I’ve met on this same path: others struggling against the elements of their lives to still press on and discover the treasured language we know is hidden up ahead.
That night, I found a hand I could hold, physically hold, on that path. I grabbed it then. It grabbed me back. And for a good long while we held ourselves together, glued by love, tears, and snot.
I’d given up long ago on finding support for my writing from within my family. I was faith-less, and without that faith, I was blind to the growing support Bo wanted to give me. He may never understand my stories, but faith isn’t built on logic, is it? It comes from Hope. Love. Joy. Sacrifice.
Jesus once said that if you have the faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains.
Music tells such marvelous stories. Sometimes, though, music written so perfectly for one story never fits anywhere else. Many of John Williams‘ themes, for instance, are cemented in their iconic-ness: Superman, Jaws, Indiana Jones, Star Wars–even Harry Potter. The themes for those characters fit. Period. For a sample of Williams’ work, this is a decent mix:
But then there’s the occasional surprise: an iconic sound that still produces a fresh image far removed from the music’s original universe.
Take Jim Parker‘s theme for Midsomer Murders. The original novels were written by an amazing old granny named Caroline Graham. Never have I seen point of view shifts performed so smoothly and so often than in her work–a “Lessons Learned” post is coming, I promise you. For now, though, let’s listen.
The discovery was something like an apple to the noggin. I had experienced a very, very weird dream brimming with potential for a kid’s adventure story, but I wasn’t capturing the bizarreness of the world: the details felt, well, lame, like a flannel-graph presentation for teenagers. I was desperately flipping through Hans Zimmer, The Beatles, The Who, and even Joel McNeely to get me into…well more like “out of.” I needed to feel the fall out of the humdrum and into the crazy. But without the right music, I just couldn’t get over the edge.
Now this is back when Biff and Bash were still wee and nursing. I often had a show locked’n’loaded in the player for late-night feedings. Weary of our home’s offerings, I had picked up Midsomer Murders from the library earlier that day. 2am: Biff and Bash are hungry. I situate the pillows, crook the boys to the boobs. On comes the title sequence and that clarinet like water in a shopping mall’s fountain: a quiet fluttering one only notices on the corner of perception. Then come the theremin and the strings. They float about like the bedsheet ghosts one hangs from trees on Halloween: eerie, a touch off, but not nightmare fuel. The sort of music for spooking kids, filling a night with as many giggles as shrieks…
YES! I could picture it all now: the kid stuck in the middle of nowhere who meets another bored kid who isn’t a proper kid at all, the trip down below to the goblin king and his mastery of giants–Brilliant, must write! But the boys are still nursing. Suckle faster, dammit!
It’s amazing what sights and sounds can spark up our imaginations, especially when we’re worn out by all that life requires of the grown-up. Let Jim Parker give you a break from adulthood and run loose as a kid, full of mischief for the humdrum village outside.