Thanks, Harry

My old desk does an arabesque in the morning when I first arrive.

It’s a pleasure to see, it’s waiting there for me to keep my hopes alive.

Such a comfort to know it’s got no place to go,

It’s always there

It’s the one thing I’ve got, a huge success,

My good old desk.

My old desk never needs a rest

and I’ve never once heard it cry.

I’ve never seen it tease it’s always there to please me

From nine to five.

HarryThere was a wonderful innocence about Harry Nilsson in those days. Like Randy Newman and Van Dyke Parks, he was a singer-songwriter with a great appreciation for the commonplace, a love of old (1920s-1940s) music, and an iconoclastic way of telling a story. The Beatles were crazy about him. I was, too, and among those of a certain age, he was the odd musical hero. He never grew old enough to call his fans by name—as he described the slow fade of a pop star. Instead, he flamed out, but, somehow, Nilsson is not included  in most “rock stars who died too young” compendia.

The place to start is not his best known hit, “Everybody’s Talkin’,” the Fred Neil song that he happened to record because he and his producer liked the tune (it became the opening theme for the film Midnight Cowboy, so it became famous). His novelty song “Coconut” was also a top ten hit, but it, too, was an aberration. “Without You” (you know: “I can’t live if living is without you…”) is better, but not on my list of his best work.

Where to start? Early, but not too early. Set your time machine to 1968, 1969 and 1970. Each year presented a very special album by an extraordinary performer, a storyteller with a wonderful sense of melody working, on two of these albums, in spectacular harmony with the ideal producer for these projects, Rick Jarrard.

I would start with the album called Harry because it contains so many of my favorite Nilsson songs—each one handsomely presented with an elaborate arrangement. “Nobody Cares About the Railroads Anymore” and “Morning Glory Story”—the latter is a dignified portrait of a homeless woman, a topic nobody sang or wrote about back in 1970—make sense on an album with similar stories by Bill Martin, “Fairfax Rag” and “Rainmaker” (you know the story; he tells it especially well). And, there’s a song by Randy Newman, then no better known than Nilsson himself: “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear.”

Nilsson’s voice and style was especially well-suited to Randy Newman’s music, and so, the 1970 album was devoted entirely to his work. This is a spectacular pop music milestone, story after story, sensitively and imaginatively told: short stories, really, told with the full power of music and nostalgia. Every song is special, and, in its way, timeless.

The prelude to all of this, an album called Aerial Ballet, is filled with top-notch pop songs that set Nilsson’s bubbly, sensitive, smart style. It’s the album with more familiar songs than the others: “Everybody’s Talkin’” and “One” (a top ten hit for Three Dog Night) among them. It’s great fun, but I like Harry and Nilsson Sings Newman so much that this album takes third position. (In the early 1970s, Nilsson reworked this and an earlier album, including new mixes and some new vocals, to create Aerial Pandemonium Ballet).

If you’re interested in going further, some would claim that Nilsson Schmilson, produced by Richard Perry, is his best. It’s certainly his most commercial, most mainstream (it was produced with that specific intention, and I think it suffers for its success). Better is his salute to the music of the 1940s (mostly) in what turned out to be a career-killer (with a stupid title): A Little Touch of Schmilson in the Night (the link leads to a BBC documentary about the making of the album). This is lovely work, better than most of what Rod Stewart and others have done with similar material, and it’s worth owning. At the time, it was considered wildly narcissistic, part of a larger pattern of disengagement with the realities of the music business, and, sadly, a harbinger of the musician’s disengagement with anything resembling a rational, healthy life.

Nilsson bookThe early days, and the dreadful slide into substance abuse, crappy behavior and, ultimately, death, is told with appropriate accuracy and sensitivity by biographer Alyn Shipton. The book is called Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter, and it’s difficult for fans of the early days to read and comprehend. Happily, the first half of the book explores the good times: the details of the relationships and creative decisions that led to the artist’s finest work, notes from the recording sessions, a rich history of the relationship between Nilsson and masterful arranger George Tipton, stories about so many songs that are so special to long-time Nilsson fans.

I suspect we all believed that Harry’s lyrics to Mr. Richland’s Favorite Song would come true, that each successive decade would find fewer and fewer of us grooving to Nilsson’s fine work and that, in time, the cult would become smaller and perhaps more intimate with a favorite musician from our youth or college days. It didn’t go down that way. Harry became a giant problem: tremendously talented, proven, light-hearted at his best, bad company at his worst. Later albums are, as a rule, dreadful, sarcastic, and lacking in the wonderful subtlety that made his work so very special.

If you feel the need to explore this work, and to try to make sense of the life that included the early albums and the likes of “you’re breakin’ my heart/you’re tearin’ it apart/so f— you” (which only began the nasty period), several options. One is to try to wrap your head around the awful Nilsson collaboration with John Lennon (who was also going through a bad period); it’s called Pussy Cats. Another is explore Knnillssonn with its strange (and sometimes lovely) production experimentation, and the return of the warmth that once characterized everything the man did. As Douglas Hofstadter might describe it, Harry was a strange loop.

Or, if you just want it all, there is a box set with just about all of his work. Click the link for a fascinating, detailed exploration of the whole 17-disc project.

Nilsson box

Masterful Visualizing

In my last post, I recommended a book entitled The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler. As a companion, I recommend another book from the same publisher, Michael Weise Productions. This one is entitled Cinematic Storytelling: The 100 Most Powerful Film Conventions Every Filmmaker Must Know. It’s written by Jennifer van Sijll. Like The Writer’s Journey, Cinematic Storytelling is useful to the one telling the story, and to the reader or audience member on the receiving end. Why does this book matter? Because we’re rapidly developing into a world of visual storytellers–smartphones and digital cameras in hand–and it would be wonderful if everyone could do their job just that much better.

CInematicStory_website_largeBasically, this book is an encyclopedia of visual storytelling techniques, but it’s fun to browse because every idea is illustrated by frames from a well-known or significant film–and each sequence is presented with the relevant bit of the screenplay along with perceptive commentary from the author.

Some are easily understood by the audience, and as a result, they must be used judiciously by the filmmaker or storyteller: the slow-motion sequence in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull; the freeze frame that ends Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; the fast-motion sequence in the French film, Amelie; the famous flashback in the Billy Wilder film, Sunset Boulevard; the visual match cut that transforms a bone into a spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey; the long dissolve between young Rose and Old Rose in Titanic.

A specialty lens was used by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane–perhaps the movie most often used as an example to illustrate a variety of techniques. Sometimes, a telephoto is the appropriate storytelling choice, and sometimes, it’s the wide angle. These are not random, on-the-fly choices; instead, they are carefully considered during the storyboard phases of film development.

In this entry featuring The Graduate, the author explains the use of a "rack-focus"--here, shifting the focal point from one character to another. The author explains, "Unseen by Elaine, who is still facing Ben, Mrs. Robinson stands in the doorway. Mrs. Robinson is out-of-focus and ghost-like. When Elaine spins around, Mrs. Robinson is pulled into focus, and Elaine is thrown out of focus (Image 4). Every line in Mrs. Robinson's defeated face now shows. After a beat, Mrs. Robinson disappears from the door. When Elaine turns back to Ben, her face remains momentarily blurred, externalizing her confusion. At the moment of recognition, her face is pulled back into focus.

In this entry featuring The Graduate, the author explains the use of a “rack-focus”–here, shifting the focal point from one character to another. The author explains, “Unseen by Elaine, who is still facing Ben, Mrs. Robinson stands in the doorway. Mrs. Robinson is out-of-focus and ghost-like. When Elaine spins around, Mrs. Robinson is pulled into focus, and Elaine is thrown out of focus (Image 4). Every line in Mrs. Robinson’s defeated face now shows. After a beat, Mrs. Robinson disappears from the door. When Elaine turns back to Ben, her face remains momentarily blurred, externalizing her confusion. At the moment of recognition, her face is pulled back into focus.

Selecting a particular point-of-view (POV) can be a critically important aspect of storytelling, as with the below-the-swimmer underwater sequence just before the first swimmer is killed by a shark in JAWS. For which scenes is a low-angle shot most appropriate (character POV for E.T. would be one example), or for which would a high-angle shot be the better creative choice? When does it make sense to use a tracking shot (the camera is mounted on a tripod that glides along tracks; some low-budget achieve similar results by employing a wheelchair)?

Lighting is another variable. In American Beauty, there’s a scene illuminated by candlelight. In E.T., the search is conducted by flashlights and car headlights that illuminate an otherwise dark nighttime landscape.

In Barton Fink, individual shots of props (hotel stationery, an old typewriter) add visual context. Wardrobe is another defining option. So, too, is the use of location as a theme, a concept so masterfully used by director David Lynch in the vaguely creepy Blue Velvet.

It’s not always about what is seen. Sometimes, the scene contains less information, and the story or theme is carried by music or sound effects. Back to Barton Fink for the eerie sense of surreal sound and its ability to paint a picture of each character’s inner world.

Masterful Storytelling

WritersJourney3rddropWe live in remarkable times. Stories are told in every part of the world, and shared with millions of people. Once, this was the domain of the rich and powerful. Today, anybody can tell a story, and share the majesty of their ideas.

Of course, some stories are better than others. There is an art and a craft to all of this, a discipline studied in college programs and in private instruction taught by masters.

One such master is a Hollywood story consultant named Christopher Vogler. Since 1998, Vogler has been the industry expert on a particular, popular type of storytelling and character development. He explains it all in a wonderful book entitled The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers,  now published in its third edition by Michael Weise Productions.

No doubt, you are familiar with the structure of the mythical hero’s journey. You’ve seen it in so many movies. The hero of the story does not begin as a hero. Instead, he or she (more often, he) is an ordinary guy doing ordinary things every day. Then, something happens, and suddenly, he is thrust into an uncomfortable role, reluctant to proceed in anything resembling a heroic journey. Inevitably, the wizened old mentor or the playful talking dog shows up, and the ordinary guy begins to understand that he has no choice, that he must pursue the journey whether or not he wants to do so.

It’s Star WarsThe Wizard of Oz, Sister Act, Big, Raiders of the Lost Ark… you know the routine, but it’s still a story we love to experience, a story we love to tell. It’s the human experience, each time presented anew.

We’re on a mission from God” — Dan Ackroyd and John Landis, screenplay, Blues Brothers

So what’s so special about this book? Well, Vogler has a tidy way of breaking down each of the steps along the journey. For example, after leaving the ordinary world; hearing the call to adventure; refusing the call; meeting with the mentor; encountering tests, enemies and allies; and approaching an innermost cave, the hero is inevitably faced with an ordeal that must be overcome in order to move ahead with the journey. Joseph Campbell, whose book, Hero with A Thousand Faces, covers much of the same territory from a mythological analysis perspective, also arrives, at this point in the journey, at the greatest challenge and the fiercest opponent. So here’s the secret of the ordeal:

Heroes must die so they can be reborn.

To be clear, “the dramatic movement that audiences enjoy more than any other is death and rebirth. In some way, in every story, heroes face death or something like it: their greatest fears, the failure of an enterprise, the end of a relationship, the death of an old personality. Most of the time, they magically survive this death and are literally or symbolically reborn to reap the consequences of having cheated death. They have passed the main test of being a hero.”

Vogler goes on to explain that heroes “don’t just visit death and come home. They return changed, transformed.” So, the ordeal serves as a central core to the story, the place where the variety of story threads begin to tie together in a meaningful way. BUT–the crisis is not the climax of the story. That’s a completely different concept, a part of the story that arrives much later on (near the end, in fact.)

One reason why we love to watch the hero’s journey time and again is because every story is unique. Vogler explains how and why this may be true. Most often, the crisis occurs at the story’s mid-point, which Vogler describes as a tent pole–if it’s too far to one side, the tent sags / the audience’s interest wanes. (He reminds us that our word “crisis” comes from a Greek word meaning “to separate.” Vogler looks at the question of ordeal from many different perspectives, each one a driver that we’ve all experienced in the movies or in good fiction: a crisis of the heart, standing up to a parent, witnessing the death of a loved one, going crazy with emotion, and the list goes on.

If you’re sensing that The Writer’s Journey might be a useful tool for both constructing and de-construcing stories, you’re beginning to understand the value of Volger’s accomplishment. For the writer attempting to tell a story in a way that will ring true for the reader or the audience, this would seem to be an essential tool. For the reader, or the movie fan who wants to better understand the art and craft of storytelling, the deep secrets of the creative team, this book exposes the magic for the trickery that it is, then waves its cape to reveal far deeper magic within. For the English teacher, or professor, in search of a far better way to connect with students who ought to read or write with greater proficiency, here’s the elixir.

Of course, that’s only part of the story: the writing. Next up, from the same publisher: how to tell the visual story to ignite the audience’s imagination.

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