An individual exhibiting such uniqueness or individuality that he or she will cause a roomful of bar cronies to exclaim, "That's one interesting motherfucker!" Actual sexual relations with one's mother are not required.
Let me ask you this - when you are in conversation and are describing a fellow human whom you think to be somewhat off their rocker, what is one of the subtlest yet most effective cues you can use to demonstrate your assertion without being too blatant. The answer, of course, is for you to hum the infamous shower music from the film "Psycho" - you know, the slicing violins that matched the "mother" character's hacking and chopping of beautiful Janet Leigh's tender flesh. That snippet of music, perhaps the most famed and imitated section of film music in all history, has become synonymous with insanity, wigginess and John Saleeby. (Interestingly enough, Hitchcock originally wanted to leave the scene silent.)
If you're like me, the minute you saw that scene you pulled up your pants and said to yourself, "By gum, who is the composer responsible for such a memorable moment." In reply, one of the many voices in your head stated, "Why that is none other than notorious film composer, Bernard Herrmann. If you would like to find out more I suggest you read Acid Logic dot com's remarkable piece 'Interesting Motherfuckers: Bernard Herrmann.'" And that's how we all ended up here, being so palsy-walsy and cuddle-wuddly.
Herrmann's long and fruitful career spanned many decades and over fifty films. But even more noteworthy than his prolific output was the distinctiveness of his scores. While the history of movie music is rife with hacks who could capably duplicate the work of others while leaving no identifying stamp of their own, Herrmann's music is unique enough that one can listen his work from the forties back to back with his work from the seventies and hear a connection. All his scores, even the romances, have an inherent tension, an unrest that provides them a distinctive signature. They are percussion heavy, with crescendoing cymbals, and they rely more on solid hits of brass than the more standardized violin sections that lesser Hollywood composers depended on. His brand of dissonance is just as apparent in his first score, "Citizen Kane," as it is in his last, "Taxi Driver." (Some folk have even claimed that Herrmann's scores often overpowered their films - I might agree were I also a sensitive, limp-wristed moron.)
Now we could talk about several of the different areas of Bernard Herrmann's life. We could talk of his early work devising scores for radio (including the infamous Halloween broadcast of Orson Welle's "War of the Worlds), or we could talk of his lavish film scores for romance films in the forties. Hell, we could even talk about his ear hair - but since I'm the captain here, I think we should focus on the work of Herrmann's that has most interested me: his science fiction, suspense and adventure film scores.
These works include a numbers of pieces the reader is presumable familiar with. The aforementioned "Psycho" soundtrack is one. Perhaps you're fond of his eclectic work on Ray Harryhausen adventure films like "Mysterious Island." Or how about. what's that? You say you would rather talk about Bernard Herrmann's ear hair? Well, look, that really isn't in my field of expertise - for that I refer you to the groundbreaking treatise: "The Ear and Nose Hair of Bernard Herrmann" - by Tyson Schiffler, 1987 Sandoval House Publications. (Yes, the nose hair chapters are pretty stiff, but the ear hair sections really are breakthrough material.)
So anyway - if we're going to take a look at Herrmann's work for cool films - and by "cool" I mean any film which features aliens, homicidal maniacs or sword wielding skeletons - then I think the place to start is with the genre transcending sci-fi masterpiece "The Day the Earth Stood Still." If you've seen this cult classic then you know it's about an human-looking alien who arrives on earth with his favorite robot to deliver an important F.Y.I to humans: Stop fighting or we'll blow you up. (Hey, it worked in the film; maybe we should try it with those numbskulls over in the Middle East.) Herrmann's score combined his usual orchestral bombasts with the classic sound of fifties sci-fi "bug music." (By "bug music" I refer to that often lampooned style that sounds like an army of radioactive grasshoppers playing a Theremin.) It's dated stuff, but even in such a schlocky soundscape, something about Herrmann's score rises above the rest, conveying a sense of panicked urgency.
And "panicked urgency" was something Herrmann could supply as well as any home pregnancy test, so it made perfect sense that in the fifties he aligned himself with a director who was intrinsically interested in all things panicky and urgent. That director was Alfred Hitchcock. Alfie and Benny did a number of films together, and as you watch them, you realize how important Herrmann's sound towards creating some of the definitive Hitchcockian elements: the spiraling nausea of "Vertigo," the zooming excitement of "North by Northwest," or the dramatic stab of "Psycho." (Of all film genres, suspense is probably most dependent on a soundtrack. Imagine swinging open a closet door to reveal an axe weilding maniac and not having your actions accented with a blaring musical cue? You might as well invite the guy downstairs for milk and cookies.) Unfortunately, Herrmann and Hitchcock were both a little too much alike (e.g. they were unbending, egotistical dickwads) and their partnership ended due to their conflicting personalities.
Not to be swayed, Herrmann then teamed up with producer Charles Schneer to score a series of fantasy films. One of the more notable aspects of these projects - which included movies like "Jason and the Argonauts" and "Mysterious Island" - was that they featured the breakthrough stop-motion animation of Ray Harryhausen - a cat verging on a nomination for Interesting Motherfuckerhood himself! Their work together provided some of the most brainwarping combinations of sight and sound. Chief amongst examples is the scene from "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad," in which our hero has an out and out sword dual with a walking skeleton. Herrmann highlighted the percussive elements of such a battle by creating rattling "bone music" on a xylophone. Herrmann also augmented Harryhausen's animated creatures for "Mysterious Island," a film set in the world of Jules Verne's Captain Nemo. In the story, a group of stranded travelers encounter a series of enlarged breasts, sorry, beasts such as a giant crab and bees. Herrmann combined the natural sounds such creatures would create with a flighty score to emphasize their menace.
You say that's not enough for you? Well dig this, peacock breath - Bernardo also scored some of your favorite Twilight Zone episodes. (If the following aren't among your favorite Twilight Zone episodes, you suck.) For instance, do the words "My name is Talky Tina and I'm going to kill you" ring a bell in your dinosaur-like craniums? They should remind you of the classic "Living Doll" episode featuring Telly Savalas. And don't it just beat all get out to know our man Bernie did the music. Or how about the classic "Where is Everybody?" episode where a man wakes up in a deserted town and desperately searches for human contact. Once again, B-Man running the show.
Granted, most of Herrmann's work was for Grade A, distinguished, suit and tie kinds of projects. But even he did some work for low budget schlockers. For instance, dare you recall Larry Cohen's 1970's horror flick, "It's Alive!" which featured a killer mutant baby?! I gotta tell ya, I consider Herrmann to have been a dignified cat, but the image of an old Jewish guy sitting in a room coming up with music for a film that has demonic toddlers hopping around to be quite humorous. Presumably, Bernard realized he was taking a turn for the absurd and got back on track by doing a score for neo-Hitchcock Brian DePalma's thriller "Obsession." And then, wracked with ill health, Herrmann began work on what I consider to be his best score: Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver.
On its visual merits alone, Taxi Driver (1975) was a masterpiece of filmmaking, but combined with Herrmann's cool jazz score it became an overwhelming piece of cinema. It's impressive enough that Herrmann, then in his seventies, was still able to dream up music that sounded vital and contemporary, but it's even more impressive when you realize he was dying at the time. Though physically weakened, Bernard still managed to compose and record the music for the film in his last months of life (He died in his sleep mere hours after the final recording session.) Few people in the world of the arts have managed to end their careers on such a high note.
There's one other element to Herrmann's scores that should be mentioned before we take our leave of each other and start drowning our sorrows in Vicadin and Gin cocktails: Herrmann's film music can stand on its own! Sure, it's great to dig Herrmann while watching the movies, but you don't need to see Tony Perkins slashing up bimbos to dig the score to "Psycho," nor do you need to watch Travis Bickle shooting pimps and drug dealers to enjoy the music of "Taxi Driver." (You do need to be watching killer babies to really hip to the "It's Alive!" score however.) It ain't a rare moment around the Forbis household that I'll find myself chilling to Herrmann music while doing the dishes or sitting on the pot. And the more you listen, the more you find yourself matching the mood of the music. When a series of lush violins is broken by a series of percussive breaks, I often throw some dishes against the wall to grab onto the mood. If the swooping score to Vertigo is emanating in the air, I respond by chasing the cat around with a broom. Hell, the way I figure it - the whole world is a Bernard Herrmann film score waiting to happen. People may laugh or stare or poke but they don't get that I'm participating in something great. Hey get away from me, Goddamn you! GET AWAY FROM ME!End Credits - Music fades..
Wil Forbis is the pen named shared by such noted authors as James Ellroy, Katie Roiphe, and Jim Thompson. E-mail him, I mean, them, at firstname.lastname@example.org
View Wil's Acid Logic web log, a stirring endorsement of sex with pandas!
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