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James Horner, cockroach of composers?

James Horner, cockroach of composers? (photo)

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It’s winter, the indie companies are flailing, the bloggers are despairing, the economy still sucks and the only true blockbuster on an understocked December slate is “Avatar.” You think indies are endangered? Pity the poor composers of film scores. Where once they cranked out orchestral majesty for most major releases, they’ve now become an optional component, victim to changing tastes and the commercial allure of the all-song soundtrack.

But one’s risen above the purge. After working steadily through plenty of high-profile gigs (“Star Trek II,” “Apollo 13,” etc.), James Horner ensured himself the professional equivalent of tenure by writing the score for “Titanic,” which sold 27 million copies worldwide and was the highest-selling primarily orchestral soundtrack ever.

Even though everyone bought the disk for Celine Dion’s little song, correlation is often causation in Hollywood. And sure, Horner’s feeling the changing times as much as anyone — would the Horner of 1995, who scored “Casper,” “Braveheart” and “Apollo 13” (out of six that year, no less), be happy knowing he’d be doing “Bobby Jones: Strokes of Genius” in 2004? But hey, he’s working.

And high-profile gigs do still exist. Horner just devoted a year and a half of his life to “Avatar.” This has resulted in an unusually lengthy LA Times profile in which Horner says things like “What I have done is create a world that uses a tremendous amount of colour — colours that we haven’t heard before” with a straight face.

12012009_horner.jpgBy “color,” he means “a small bit of orchestral music, then three or four ethnic instruments will play and then somebody will sing and then the orchestra will do something and it has to all be seamless over, say, a 12-minute sequence.” LIKE NOTHING WE’VE EVER HEARD. Sure. “Ethnic instruments.” And electronics. These are new.

For those of you not immersed in the fast-paced arguments and controversies of the film score world, you should know that the Times profile is basically a softball pitch, with London Symphony Orchestra principal tuba player Patrick Harrild reminiscing about working with Horner, who he claims couldn’t possibly be nicer. This results in some inadvertent hilarity — “The first score I recorded with him was the one about little people — ‘Willow,’ ” he says, which is as good a summary as any.

So, in case you didn’t know, James Horner — whose scores, for over a decade now, have rarely been anything other than sentimental strings, warmed-over classicisms and the occasional “exotic” element (Zorro!) — is a very controversial guy who, a decade ago, become symbolic of everything wrong with contemporary film scores.

He was attacked by Alex Ross in the New Yorker and the good folks at Film Score Monthly went around in circles for months on the question of how much he stole from himself/classical music, whether or not he was a horrible human being, etc. In the late ’90s, in short, there wasn’t a single film score composer more polarizing amongst the kind of person who cares about these things.

But a decade’s passed, and Horner stands atop the heap, proudly employed, convinced of his own worth and still entrusted with expensive projects. He writes the kind of generically “old-fashioned” scores that just scream “Hollywood movie” and (like Donald Trump says) “quality.” Those kind of movies, for better or worse, are no longer as popular as they once were, and with them goes the expensive niche once held by Horner’s scores.

So when you watch “Avatar,” you might as well be watching the last stand of the old-school film composer. But for now, Horner says “Hollywood movie” in the old-fashioned sense, while no one knows what’s to come next.

[Top photo: “Avatar,” 20th Century Fox, 2009]

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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