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Sunday, December 17, 2006

Spacing out

Through no fault of my own, I watched some television recently and learned some things.  Last night, for example, watching Saturday Night Live with Janet for the first time in years, I learned that Justin Timberlake is (a) reasonably talented, (b) not particularly attractive, and (c), a decent comic-sketch actor and a really, really good sport.  So that’s something.

A couple of days ago, while taking a break from student papers and show trials and Weblog Award weirdnesses, I caught the last forty minutes of Aliens on channel 33,573.  I hadn’t seen it since its release in 1986, and you know, it’s a pretty good SF-meets-action flick after all.  Easily the best item in the franchise.  I remember reading an essay a few years later about how the film gives you SF/action’s first ass-kicking female lead but does so, via a curious kind of compensatory logic, in a film that’s all about the icky-and-terrifying qualities of eggs and organs and pregnancy and reproduction.  But mostly I was reminded of Sigourney Weaver’s hilarious turn as Gwen DeMarco in Galaxy Quest (one of our fave movies in this house), where she’s frantically crawling through the ship’s vents with Tim Allen, yelling, “vents!  why is it always vents?” The line is funny on its own, since the crawling-through-vents motif is common to any number of films, but I’d forgotten that a good portion of the closing sequences of Aliens involves crawling through the vents.  So that was a nice little intertextual moment, and another point for Galaxy Quest, one of the smartest-and-funnest movies of recent years.

And then at the very end of Aliens, I came upon something odd.  Ripley and Newt escape, Ripley puts them both into hibernation, the screen goes dark, the credits roll, and what do we hear but Aram Khachaturian’s “Gayane Ballet Suite” (Adagio).

That’s right, Aram Khachaturian’s “Gayane Ballet Suite.” Are you kidding me?  What film or SF geek wouldn’t know that the “Gayane Ballet Suite” was used in the soundtrack for 2001: A Space Odyssey?  What is this, soundtrack homage?  Or just plain laziness?

For those of you who aren’t obsessed by such things, the “Gayane Ballet Suite” sequence in 2001 occurs just after the monolith on the moon has let out that piercing shriek.  Humans are standing around the monolith, about to take a group picture with the thing, when suddenly there’s a horrible electronic wail that brings them all to their knees.  Why?  We don’t know.  Maybe the monolith doesn’t like being photographed!  No, not really.  It turns out, as I’m sure you remember, that the thing was designed to send a signal back to its designers when it was struck by sunlight.  The idea is that if the grunting hominids of four million BCE ever got it together and discovered the big magnetic thing the Extraterrestrial Intelligences left on the moon, said hominids, or their descendents (that’s us!), would become eligible for membership in the Galactic Club of Giant Floating Fetuses.  Anyway, next thing we know, there’s an utterly bizarre spacecraft floating through the void, a kind of elongated spine with a big antenna in the middle and an eerie knob on one end, with a kind of black visor and three round ports, looking like a Face that is No Face.  The title reads “Jupiter Mission, 18 Months Later,” and there is no explanation of why there is a Jupiter Mission.  Indeed, in the version screened in the premiere, there weren’t even any titles.  Kubrick, being Kubrick, didn’t want to explain anything at all.  He stripped out the entire film’s voiceover at the last minute (a very good move—think Blade Runner in reverse), but the result was so completely confusing that he put a couple of titles in there (“The Dawn of Man,” etc.) as a concession to our limited intelligence.  (The movie is still confusing, but that’s quite deliberate, of course, and if you ask me nicely I’ll post whole sections of my essay about 2001 and superpower paranoia from Public Access.) Anyway, as this bizarre ship glides across the screen from left to right, and an astronaut in t-shirt and shorts runs around the centrifuge in the eerie “head” of the ship, we hear this achingly sad and beautiful music that seems to suggest loneliness and loss and profound longing.  It is, for me, one of the most unheimlich moments in science fiction, and pretty amazing in any genre.  The choice of the “Gayane Ballet Suite” is a masterstroke.  Kubrick, being Kubrick, commissioned a score and then (again at the last minute) scrapped it, replacing it with some of his favorite tunes.  So you get the hair-raising “Requiem” of Gyorgi Ligeti whenever we hominids gather round the monolith, and Ligeti’s ethereal “Lux Aeterna” when the Americans are taking the moon shuttle over to the monolith site, and of course the Strauss everyone knows.  But think of the tonal difference between waltzing to the moon on the strains of “The Blue Danube” (where space flight seems grand and joyous and kind of jolly) and drifting mournfully to Jupiter in a creepy skeletal ship to the plaintive, haunting strains of the “Gayane Ballet Suite.” That’s all the tonal difference in the world, folks. 

Anyway, what I’m saying is that the sequence is deservedly famous, and you should go watch it now.  And as I crawled off to bed at 1 a.m. that night, having just heard a thinner rendition of the “Gayane Ballet Suite” over the credits for Aliens (where it just doesn’t have the same emotional impact, let me tell you), I wondered just what in the world James Cameron was thinking.  Fortunately, thanks to the Internets, I found this illuminating item on the Internets Movie Database:

In an interview, composer James Horner felt that James Cameron had given him so little time to write a musical score for the film, he was forced to cannibalize previous scores he had done as well as adapt a rendition of “Gayane Ballet Suite” for the main and end titles.

So that explains that.  Still, even if you were working to score a science fiction film on an impossible deadline, raiding the “Gayane Ballet Suite” has to be one of your worst possible options.  It’s a little like scoring a Vietnam movie and deciding, “hey, maybe something by the Doors would work here.”

Posted by Michael on 12/17 at 10:39 AM
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