Friday, July 18, 2008

The Best Song To Play While The Hero Is Running To Do Something Heroic

Someone once told me that there are only seven basic storylines in all of literature and entertainment. All stories, this person (who was slightly less fun at a party than I am) said, can be boiled down to one of seven basic plots. He then listed them for me (proving my point about the whole who's-more-fun-at-a-party thing). They are, to the best of my recollection:

1. Boy meets, loses, and gets girl.
2. The quest story where the hero needs to get something and bring it back -- but that something is not the girl.
3. How difficult it is to be the manager of an aquarium.

I can't remember the other four, but you get the gist of it. Interestingly, Ryan Reynolds has starred in a movie about each of the seven basic plot lines.

I think that analysis is too reductive; saying that any story where there's love in it is a boy-meets-girl story is the same as when my kids say hamburger again but it's not hamburgers, it's Sloppy Joes. If the meat is in a different form, it's a different meal, right?

So there's a greater variety of plot lines than Mr. Boring Party Guy wanted to believe, but even with that, there are two constants in storytelling, two elements that must be present in every story for a story to transcend the ordinary. They are [REVERSE SPOILER ALERT, SINCE THE TITLE TELLS YOU WHAT'S COMING NEXT, BUT IF YOU'VE FORGOTTEN THE TITLE OF THIS POST, THEN DON'T GO BACK AND READ IT BECAUSE IT REALLY WILL BE A SPOILER THEN]

... as I was saying, they are:

1. The hero must run somewhere at the end to achieve his goal, and
2. Cool music must be playing over that run.

Those two, put together, are not only a hallmark of, but are the pinnacle of art. Simply put, if at the end of a story, the hero isn't running somewhere with some great music providing the dramatic musical background to the run, then everything that's come before it worthless. That's why the ending to The Sopranos had so many people upset. It would have been entirely different if Tony Soprano had gotten up from that booth, started running outside, made it to the FBI's office or his house or the corner newstand that was just closing up, all while, say, Erasure's A Little Respect was playing over the scene:

and then fade to black.

See what a genius I am? If I'd been in charge, there would at least have been one good scene in the history of The Sopranos.

That kind of scene at the end is necessary because by having the hero run, the writer/storyteller demonstrates the urgency of the hero's quest, and by extension, the urgency of our own lives. It provides a jolt of adrenaline at the end of the story that makes the observer finish on an energetic, up note, as compared to, say, an ending where Richard Gere and Diane Lane just sit at a stoplight, making the viewer want to just sit there, too, and creating a nation of couch potatoes.

The hero running at the end of the story, with music, is also necessary and desirable because it demonstrates the key facets of civilization as we've come to know it and sometimes love it, namely, that humans are always trying to get somewhere, and also that humans really like music.

Having established that any story or movie or TV show that does not end with the hero running to get somewhere is just trash, it's time to consider which movie put those two together best -- and it has to be a movie or TV show, really, because while the running part can be put into books, it's harder to do it with music unless the publisher ships a CD with the book and at various points in the book the reader is instructed to play the CD.

Which they should do; I listen to music when I write to help create the mood I'm looking for (which is always earn money. That's the mood of my writing.) The reader should be given a chance to experience that mood through the music the writer wanted. In short, books should have soundtracks, and they just may someday because of things like that electronic book reader from Amazon which can let you download pretty much any book you want; how long will it be before you download the soundtrack to the book, too?

You know I'm on to something, here. I'm always on to something, here, because I'm a genius and a societal leader. So remember: books with soundtracks = my idea.

Until society catches up with me, great running-with-music scenes will exist only in movies, TV shows, and the rare very-modern art museum where they will play music and have employees perform a sort of flip-book of Monet works. But it's mostly movies, for now.

The real key to a running-at-the-end scene is the music, though, because, let's face it, running is running. It doesn't matter if it's Billy Crystal running to meet Meg Ryan when people liked her still, or all those guys in Chariots of Fire running onto the beach to get away from that shark*

*I haven't actually seen Chariots of Fire; I'm just guessing.

it's all still running. The music that the running is set to, then, is what sets your run-of-the-mill (PUN INTENDED) running scene apart from something classic. That Chariots of Fire scene, for example, with the song they play over it, lacks something of the dramatic element. The song is grand and all, but it's also sad and ponderous and lets you know that probably 3 of those guys are going to get eaten anyway.

What's needed to really make the scene is something that's uplifting and dramatic and a little different and features a really obscure instrument. Something like Music for A Found Harmonium, the song from Penguin Cafe Orchestra which you think you've never heard but which you have in fact, heard.

I've actually known about Penguin Cafe Orchestra without knowing that I've known about them (chew on that for a minute) since their song Telephone and Rubber Band :

was featured over the credits of Eric Bogosian's concert film of his one-man show, Sex, Drugs & Rock and Roll, but I didn't know it was Penguin Cafe Orchestra or even know they existed.

Just like I didn't know what a harmonium was until [OBSCURE MUSICAL INSTRUMENT SPOILER ALERT] Adam Sandler found one in Punch Drunk Love, which I heard - -maybe from the same Mr Boring At Parties Guy -- was actually a retelling of Popeye. When I hear something like that, that an Adam Sandler movie that came this close to making me actually cry, is in reality just a live-action Popeye cartoon, I don't know whether to laugh or just start driving until I reach Arizona.

But it all came together, Penguin Cafe Orchestra and harmoniums, when I saw the closing scene from Napoleon Dynamite, where [ENERGETICALLY RUNNING SPOILER ALERT AND ALSO THERE WILL BE A MENTION OF A FISH] Napoleon runs through town to meet that girl whose name I was never quite sure of to offer her a delicious bass, and in the background, the movie plays Music for A Found Harmonium by Penguin Cafe Orchestra.

The music, like the movie, is offbeat but engagingly so. It builds and builds, swirling around the theme and adding little bits here and there, until it suddenly seems to take off into flight; it's like the music is evolving from a small grounded creature to a glorious bird, a bird that is best exemplified by ... um, Napoleon running. But the point is that the music and the moment both match each other and inspire each other, the way that Paul McCartney and John Lennon were great together and really never amounted to anything solo.

The music, too, leaves the viewer hopeful and happy and thinking Hey, life is good, and I can achieve my dreams, whatever they may be. That's a good way to end on a Friday, so listen to the song and have a great weekend:

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Thinking The Lions is the hilarious compilation of the adventures of a guy with a lot of kids, a lot of love of 70s music, a lot of time to watch Battlestar Galactica, and a very patient wife. Life, only funnier.

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