I’m totally (!) a child of “retro”. I love old cheapo synthesizers, Stephen J. Cannell shows, and crappy-ADR’d eighties bombastic cinema. In fact, the cheesier it is, the more I’m probably going to like it.
As I get a little more “edumacated”, however, I am finding that all of those things, as cool as they seemed when I was little, aren’t the least bit cool now. And why? Well, sadly, most of them were a product of the consumer machine that much of our society is still chugging away at today, it’s just that back then it all looked a little more unsophisticated, a little more raw and rough. But still, it’s the same machine, and because I was younger I bought into it. In reality, most of that stuff has not stood the test of time, and now, when the opportunity comes to try and get back into it, I can’t go there.
Here is a sad, very sad example: Commando was on a few days ago on Cinemax Action. Now, I’ve always loved old Schwarzenegger movies. They’re a complete riot. But after I finished laughing at Ahnold’s silly one-liners, the weight of just how goofy a film like Commando is nowadays was too much for me to bear. I was crushed. “Dammit,” I thought to myself. “This movie was so damned’ cool! Sully’s demise was so much funnier on Laserdisc than it is on Skin-emax! What the hell happened?”
Time, man. TIME happened. Time is the “cool” killer—the cool disintegrator. The recipe that made shows like Commando so cool back in the day consisted of one cool effect after another, layer upon layer of “cool”. Now, though, layers and layers of what was cool no longer make any sense in the context of our “economy of cool”. Again, it’s a time thing. The film is dated now, to the point of it literally being just one big fat gigantic ridiculous mess of “uncool”.
The same happens today, only with CGI. Films like G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra and the remake of Clash of the Titans might have been amazingly creative had the filmmakers not gone for the cheap thrill by just stringing together one CGI set-piece after another, until the film finally feels like one big giant ridiculous mess of, yes… uncool. In twenty years, movie-making will have gone through several more incarnations of “cool”, and we’ll be having this conversation again, except we’ll be talking about Avatar. Is it cool? Of course. But, emphasis on “is”. “Is” is current. Will it be cool? is a question that can only be answered later on.
The question, then, becomes, “What kinds of things remain “cool” no matter what time has to say about them?” Well, one could argue that “story” is still cool. Personally, I don’t like animated films, but the storylines in most Pixar films are unarguably at least half of what makes them so successful. Toy Story 3 might not look as amazing in twenty years as it did this summer because the technology will have changed so drastically by then, but my bet is that the storyline of the film will still be cool enough to choke up a new generation of viewers.
In the context of film music, we could observe the same effectual deterioration of our artform. Harmonic theory and melody have given way, in a lot of cases, to drones and the recently popular, yet musically ambiguous “ambient music design”. It takes a little doing these days to find a score for a popular tentpole that isn’t reliant on pads and drones—”atmospheric” is the buzzword I keep hearing around the studio I work at. It feels like people are a little more concerned sometimes with being “cool” with their choices of sounds and atmospheres (there’s that word again!) and less “cool”, or “creative”, in making sure that they figure a unique way to write for a character or story point. All but lost is the art of creating something uniquely suited to a character or story point in the narrative from a “aural” perspective.
I wonder what would happen if we, as composers, focused less on being “cool” and more on being “creative”? Would we need to give the “Best Picture” treatment to composers at the Oscars and expand the “Best Score” category to ten nominations as well? Would there be so many killer melodic scores with outstanding orchestration that we’d have trouble choosing? Would the line between “sound design” and “score” become even more clear, as sound designers would be more free to create without fear that the composer was going to cover it all up with atmosphere?
What does that mean to you in your work? How can you be less cool and more creative? What are YOUR personal definitions of “uncool” and how do you carefully navigate around them in your work?
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