Monday 19 October 2015

Welling up at Williams

I remember distinctly watching Superman Returns one afternoon, perhaps 7 or 8 years ago. I am a Burton Batman kid - Superman’s primary colours and goofy Donner-films never interested me. But this soft sequel was on the telly so I watched to see a more modern take on the character. A plane containing Lois Lane plummets to the ground and the Man of Steel saves it, plonking it down in the middle of a baseball game. After heading inside to check on Lois, he emerges to see the roaring stadium and John Williams’ theme starts up. Superman has returned.

At this moment an unusual thing happened. As he stood in the hatch, the crowd cheering, the percussive strings building to the fanfare, a shiver went down my neck and my eyes filled with tears. To be clear, I have no particular affection or history with Superman in any medium. Of course I know the icon and the premise, but I never read the comics and never paid much attention to the films. But there I was, blubbing on the sofa. Why?

This isn’t an isolated incident. Hearing the Star Trek: The Next Generation fanfare has had a similar effect on me. I remember several years ago loading Raiders of the Lost Ark into the DVD tray and being set off by the music on the menu screen. Only the other day I was blinking tears back at the end of Back to the Future part II when Marty receives the letter from Doc – that wasn’t even the theme tune, simply the mysterious ‘diddlo-diddloo’ prelude flourish (listen to the first seconds of ‘Western Union’ on the soundtrack if you’re unsure.) However, those are things I DO feel a childhood attachment to. Again, Superman doesn’t figure with those examples.

I do not usually cry, and certainly not in public. I’m not comfortable displaying myself in that state. I’m pretty cynical about attempts in TV and film to elicit tears through sentimentality and rousing string sections. That is not to say I’m immune to crying in the cinema – Toy Story 3 destroyed me – but a film really has to EARN an emotional response. The Superman plane sequence above was competently put together, but wasn’t designed to elicit tears – it’s simply a public reintroduction of the character in the fiction. A character I don’t particularly care for. SO again, what happened?

First I thought it must be nostalgia. I’m pining for a lost past, a childhood forever gone, lamenting our frail mortality, yadda-yadda-yadda. But I’m not nostalgic for Superman.

Then I thought maybe it’s a musical trick that Williams and co. are pulling on me. Say what you like about the Star Wars prequels, but JW absolutely NAILED it every time. I remember listening to the Phantom Menace soundtrack album back in 1999 and replaying Anakin’s Theme. It hits everything about the child – it's hopeful, fearful, with the delicate suggestion at the end of what’s ahead for the character. It’s masterful. Regardless how well JJ Abrams manages Episode VII, there’s zero doubt the score will be anything but perfect. Dinosaurs, archaeologists, aliens; he does it all the time. Maybe he's just deftly cracking out the leitmotif and playing me like a pipe with an algorithmic sequence that always produces results. Maybe I’m just getting trolled by the master.

Or perhaps I’m just getting sentimental with advancing years. You hear it all the time. It’s conceivable that seeing the pure goodness of the character through the lens of experienced cynicism has a profound emotional impact after the injustice and incompetence so readily visible in the adult world. I’ve heard of middle aged men overwhelmed while watching Secret Millionaire. Perhaps such acts of generosity and selflessness make sentimental fools of us all in our dotage. And maybe I’m weeping for optimism and enthusiasm of youth when I hear those melodies. Though that's a tad melodramatic for a 31-year old, no?

So I return to nostalgia – can you be nostalgic for things you didn’t experience? For a time when you weren’t alive? I get melancholic when I hear certain songs on the radio. The Doobie Brothers’ 1979 hit ‘What a Fool Believes’, for example. I’ve never known the lyrics, which turn out to explore differing perceptions of events and constructed memories - the tale of a man meeting a woman he remembers as an old flame and the subsequent awkwardness when she remembers no such flirtation and it’s been built up over the years in the mind of the ‘fool’. For me the song simply brings back memories of Radio 2 morning shows (the playlists of which seem to have changed little since the mid-‘80s) and working with my dad in the school holidays for some extra cash. Again, childhood. Loads of songs from the ‘70s and ‘80s make me melancholic, regardless of the genre. Could that be why I’m weeping at a guy onscreen in blue spandex?

While writing this, the rousing Thunderbirds theme came on iTunes. I smiled, and my vision went blurry. Damn it. I excitedly await the day when I break down publicly to the Antiques Roadshow theme and the R. Whites Lemonade advert.

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