Symphony for the Comet (a short film)

Hale Bopp comet, 1997, photo by John TewellI’ve had this idea for a student film in my head for 10 years and always wanted to make it. But today I have admitted to myself that I will never actually film this. Instead, I release the words from my head.


Just past dusk. A suburban church spire is silhouetted against the hazy sky. Directly above the spire, as if being pointed to, the comet Hale Bopp is clearly visible, a Nike-like swoosh.

SUPER: [The comet Hale Bopp was known as the “Great comet of 1997.”]

A car drives up to the church parking lot, and before the car has even fully stopped, the rear door opens. RICKY, a young junior high student, 12, with his tie loose and his shirt tail hanging out, rushes out, lugging a French horn case, and disappears through a side door into the back of the church.

SUPER: [In prehistoric times, comets were believed to be harbingers of doom.]

A few moments later, RICKY’S FATHER and RICKY’S MOTHER emerge from the car, close the doors without locking them, and casually make their way into the church, holding hands.


The church is warmly lit by hundreds of candles. Comfortable pews line the church floor, easily enough seating for 300 people. On stage, behind a conductor, there’s an orchestra comprised of two dozen junior high students: two oboists, a bassoonist, two French horn players (including RICKY), and various violinists, violists, cellists, and a double bassist about half as tall as his instrument. Two dozen pairs of parents are seated in random locations, some close to the stage, some further back.

When the last pair of parents has sat down, the conductor and junior high orchestra teacher, MR. TYCHO, looks at his watch and then nervously stands up. Behind him, through the stained glass window, the comet is barely visible.


Um, thank you, everyone. On behalf of the Cliffdale Junior High School Orchestra, I’d like to, er, thank everyone for attending, and, um, for all of your support. Well, the orchestra has worked really very hard on tonight’s program, so, um, this is… this is Haydn’s “Farewell Symphony.” Class!

He taps twice and the orchestra picks up their instruments. A nod and gesture, and the first turbulent notes of the allegro assai erupt from the violins. The first few seconds seem fine, but quickly the performance starts to fall apart. MR. TYCHO seems oblivious, stoic throughout. RICKY is the first to play an off note, but soon both the pace and the key of the entire ensemble deteriorate. Close-ups of the different parents show extremely visible reactions to each wrong note: A blink from one father. A frown from a mother. A series of nervous tics on a second father, in reaction to a sequence of wrong notes.

The orchestra continues on, undeterred, really doing their best. MR. TYCHO, with determined baton movements, tries to recover and get his class regrouped.

Interspersed with the performance, shots of the comet glowing brightly overhead, ominous, out of place.

Cutting ahead to the slow movement of the adagio, Haydn’s intended dissonance almost seems to be delivered by the orchestra. But one of the students drops his cello, a loud clatter from his folding chair as he scrambles to pick it up. A cut to someone who must be his father, hiding his face, he can’t bear it. He’s trembling.

The fast tempo of the last movement is next, the determination of the young orchestra obvious, sweat forming on MR. TYCHO’s brow. RICKY with his cheeks puffed up, snot running down his nose. While some parents sit passive (a close-up of one shows he’s wearing earplugs), most parents are in visible pain, reacting with spasms and jerks to each new wrong note or mistimed entrance. RICKY’S FATHER shakes his head while RICKY’S MOTHER grabs his hand. RICKY looks to them anxiously.

With a slow fade-out, finally, the last tortured note: A mournful dead cat’s howl of screeching pain.

Then: Silence.

MR. TYCHO stands stock still in front. Silence continues in the church. A survey of each parent: Shock, disbelief, pain, eyes closed, hands over ears, no motion, no words.

And then the expression of the students in the orchestra: Hopeful, expectant, exhausted, their young faces peering anxiously up from their instruments and searching around the room, looking for a reaction, any reaction. RICKY looks to his parents.

RICKY’S FATHER stands up and begins applauding. Within seconds, every parent joins him, cheering, jubilant, massive applause. It’s now a wave of standing ovations, the applause now thunderous. This is a genuine moment (no ironic slow clapping). Shouts of “brava” and other cheers. The reaction of the students is also genuine — they’re standing, bowing, giving off exhausted smiles throughout.


The comet. Silent. Motionless. When it finally leaves our night sky, it will not be seen again until the year 4534.


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