COMPOSERS: John Williams
ALBUM TITLE: John Williams’s Greatest Hits
CATALOGUE NO: S2K 51333
Is JEAN-LUC GODARD God? Well, his supporters would have us believe that he is at least Proust, Joyce and a millennial prophet all rolled into one. Those who haven’t seen his four-part video essay Histoire(s) du cinema ‘won’t have understood our times, they’ll have missed the end of the century’, opines one starry-eyed zealot. Having missed the end of the century, what can we poor saps do? Easy: invest in the soundtrack from ECM. But this is no mere ‘boxed set’: its five discs are tucked inside the covers of four sturdy tomes which contain the entire script in three languages, plus a generous dose of full-colour stills.
Deciding that it might be best to get a verbal steer before doing the actual listening, I dutifully begin to read. ‘Change nothing/so that all can be different/don’t go showing all sides of things/keep a margin of the undefined…’ That’s the opening instruction, which the unpunctuated, stream-of-consciousness script faithfully adheres to. ‘Could it be that the u/that there is in produire/prevents produire from having dire in it’. (Could be, Jean-Luc, could be!) ‘A television producer considers/at most 200 films a year/Irving Thalberg/was the only one who/every day/thought about 52 films… foundation/founding father/only son…’ Private Eye’s EJ Thribb should look to his laurels: this is serious.
But let’s be fair: let’s listen. The first thing one is compelled to admit is that Godard’s musical taste, in this vast tissue of interwoven sounds, is impeccable. He draws on Gesualdo, Pärt, Kancheli, Beethoven, Stravinsky and Bach, and mixes in Marlene, Coltrane and Bernard Herrmann; it’s all wonderfully easy on the ear. The second thing is that he has no desire to engage in intelligible debate over cultural and political history. The listener must simply dive in and follow in his wake: there are no handles to this discourse, no breakdowns into locatable tracks. He rants – well, it’s either him or a fictional mouthpiece – about the hypocrisy of governments in the face of organised brutality, but the rant never resolves into a call for action. Hitchcock is one of the biggest heroes we encounter on this labyrinthine journey – in this director’s view a poéte maudit far outclassing Rimbaud or Genet – and in Hitchcock’s ghostly presence Godard sanctimoniously bends the knee.
But when we come to the pay-off at the end of Book Four, we realise that this humility has its limits: ‘If a man/if a man wandered through paradise in his dreams/and kept a flower to remind him where he’s been/and on waking found that flower in his hands/so what can I say/I was/that man.’ Okay, so Jean-Luc woke with a flower in his hands. But what are we to do with his flower? Play party games with it, spotting cinematic and musical sources? It seems destined to sit in its elegant box in elegant feng shui habitations, to be idly stuck into the CD player from time to time to stimulate idly modish thoughts. If that was the end of the century, let it go.
After such high-octane narcissism it’s refreshing to descend to the nursery slopes with RYUICHI SAKAMOTO’s collection of his own film scores, re-recorded on tour last year. Cinemage includes music from The Last Emperor, Little Buddha and Wuthering Heights: gently Romantic stuff, and oddly old-fashioned when set alongside his escapades on the internet. But with Sakamoto you never know what’s coming next: unlike Godard, who has put up the shutters on life, this cult musician is still threshing about in the turbulence of the present.
And so to music proper: Marco Polo has followed its excellent CD of GEORGES AURIC’s score for La belle et la bête with new recordings of further Auric scores in Orphée, Ruy Blas and Thomas l’imposteur, while Chandos offers The Film Music of Georges Auric. Auric may have ended his career as a mere administrator, but he was the most deliciously responsive film composer who ever lived. While the Marco Polo recordings lack the marvellous immediacy of Auvidis’s offcuts from the original soundtracks (Travelling K1506) they still evoke Cocteau’s cinematic world. And the Chandos disc is a revelation: this quintessential Gaul turns out to be the musical force behind dozens of Ealing classics.
Meanwhile, today’s film composers remain true to form. Michael Nyman’s score for THE END OF THE AFFAIR reveals him in unrelievedly saccharine mode: eight or nine of the tracks here could have stood in for the one he chose to illustrate, ‘I know your voice, Sarah’. At least with Richard Rodney Bennett (supported by John Tavener) we get some genuinely dramatic music for GORMENGHAST. And if you can brave the lachrymose Irishness of ANGELA’S ASHES you will probably enjoy John Williams’s predictably expert score. Indeed, if you’re a Williams fan, this is your moment: JOHN WILLIAMS’S GREATEST HITS 1969-1999 takes you from Star Wars to Home Alone in two luxurious discs.