The Public Humanist

Listening to Films

The first time I remember consciously thinking about the music in a movie was probably the fifteenth time I watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. As I recall, my older brother bought the VHS tape soon after it was released, and though there was some hesitation before my parents let eight-year-old me watch a PG-13 movie (this was the first film to bear the rating, incidentally), it soon entered regular rotation in our VCR. I already knew Star Wars, and had seen Raiders of the Lost Ark on TV, so I was primed to receive the sound-world created by John Williams, the most renowned composer of film music since the 1970s. I could hum all the main tunes to these George Lucas and Steven Spielberg movies, but a shift occurred probably around age 13, when I stopped hearing these tunes merely as cool songs, independent tracks to be played over and over again on a worn-out “Original Soundtrack” cassette. Now, suddenly, the music became part of the story: something that someone made, something intended for me, on some level, to notice.

The musical theme that caught my attention is simple: a four-bar phrase beginning with a rising fourth, then progressing down and up, stepwise, in a halo of “medieval”-sounding harmonies. It appears for the first time, if my memory serves me, at the tail end of the film’s opening set-piece. Young Indy (River Phoenix) has successfully wrested the “Cross of Coronado” from the hands of would-be treasure-hunters. After an exciting chase including horses, speeding locomotives, and a boxcar filled with lions and snakes, Indy arrives at his father’s study, looking for help and – perhaps­ – some overdue recognition. The elder Jones, far from praising his son, or even acknowledging his presence until the boy counts to twenty in Greek, is lost in contemplation. In his hands (we never see the father’s face, only hear his voice) is a small notebook, in which he sketches a medieval stained-glass window. As an inept bugle call is heard from outside, a new musical element emerges in the lower strings. A single statement of the theme, and it’s over. (I made short clips of the two scenes I discuss here, which you can download. The first moment is at 00:34 in this clip.) It will be at least six or seven more minutes into the film before we hear anything about the Holy Grail, which determines the rest of the plot, but it was this brief moment, with the notebook and the musical phrase, that sets the mood of obsession, wonder, and otherworldly power that characterizes the search for the Grail.

I dubbed the tune, obviously, the “Grail Theme,” and began listening to the film’s score more closely, alert to reappearances and rearrangements. Another early example of the theme happens when Indiana Jones, now grown, goes to his father’s house, only to discover that it has been ransacked by Nazi agents. It dawns on him, standing in the mess of the house left behind, that the Nazis were looking for the very diary that we had glimpsed in that first scene. As he pulls it from his pocket, that musical phrase, slowly becoming familiar, reappears (at 00:42 in this clip). A moment later, as his thoughts spin, the music progresses in parallel motion, giving us the most elaborated version of the “Grail Theme” to that point. It’s a testament to the strength of Spielberg as a storyteller and Williams as a composer that disparate elements of our sensory experience (the sight of this diary, the sound of a particular musical phrase), can be linked so profoundly, while pointing to elusive elements still unknown to the viewer: i.e., the Grail, not viewed until the closing minutes of the film; and the Father, the inimitable Sean Connery, who makes his entrance nearly an hour into the movie, imprisoned in a Bavarian castle. What I didn’t know as a young viewer was what a rich heritage John Williams was drawing from when he composed the “Grail Theme.”

It’s to Richard Wagner that we owe the modern concept of the Leitmotiv, a typically short musical phrase whose appearance is meant to bring to mind a particular character, situation, or abstract theme. Some of Wagner’s Leitmotivs, selected at random from his various operas, include “The Love Potion,” “Wotan’s Spear,” “Subjugation,” “Nature’s Healing,” and “Desire for Redemption.” Wagner himself even wrote “Grail” themes for two separate operas, Lohengrin and Parsifal. With the advent of sound pictures in the early 1930s, composers began writing scores of increasing complexity and involvement with the visual storytelling. Many of these composers – especially after Nazi policies led to a mass exodus to Hollywood – came from the Austro-Germanic symphonic tradition, where Wagner’s influence was strong. Leitmotivs, naturally, entered the film vocabulary.

Today, though only some composers like John Williams and Howard Shore (in Lord of the Rings mode) can be consciously Wagnerian on a grand Leitmotiv-saturated scale, there’s not a single film or TV composer who doesn’t work with the idea that tying concrete musical ideas to specific elements of the visual story creates a powerful synthesis. In a profile of film and TV composer Michael Giacchino (most famous for the TV show Lost and the animated film Up), the New Yorker’s Alex Ross writes insightfully about the role of “film music”, especially in the fast-paced world of TV production. (Here’s a link to the article. Unfortunately you need to be a New Yorker subscriber to read it online) Giacchino’s compositional technique, although drawing more on avant-garde techniques of instrumentation and texture than did predecessors like John Williams, still engages with the story in telling ways. Rather than full-fledged Leitmotivs, his musical themes work more subliminally. Each character in Lost, for instance, has particular musical associations, though they’re on the level of two-note ideas or simple rhythms, and can be overlaid easily with those of other characters. Themes may be left incomplete or hinted at just for a moment. In Lost’s world of byzantine storylines and complicated genealogies, such careful craftsmanship, even if it escapes the conscious notice of the viewer, does much to establish and maintain the consistency of the fictional world, which in works of fantasy is really the name of the game.

The variety of techniques and achievements of film composers over the 83 years since the birth of “talkies” would be impossible to sum up here. My main point might be that attentive listening to movie music – even, at times, separating the auditory and visual stimuli that the director and editors have worked so hard to intertwine – can bring you deeper into a work of art and open up new paths of thought. These paths of thought can even arise from connections unimagined by the composer or director.

Lars von Trier’s 2000 film Dancer in the Dark, though a personal favorite, is a tough watch. A kind-hearted single mother who is rapidly losing her sight (played by Björk) endures a series of misfortunes and avoidable catastrophes, all leading to a conclusion that can easily leave an audience sobbing, outraged, or disgusted. In the film’s opening moments, a kaleidoscopic smear of colors fades into view, perhaps suggesting the blurred vision of Selma, the protagonist, or the “rose-colored glasses” with which she seems to view the world. We hear a short piece of music, horns in interweaving harmony, with a signature rising phrase. I remember thinking to myself as I sat in the theatre, “What does this remind me of?” It didn’t come to me at the time, so I forgot about it. I later got the soundtrack album, all songs by Björk, and noticed that this three- or four-note theme was also the kernel of the last song, “New World,” which plays over the film’s closing credits. Maybe my third or fourth listen in, it came to me in a flash. I had been reminded of the melody to “Make Our Garden Grow,” the closing aria from Leonard Bernstein’s opera Candide. The first three intervals are the same – a rising fifth, a rising fourth, followed by a falling second – and then the melodies, by different paths, end on the same note. It’s not an unmistakable resemblance – Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” also begins with a similar three-note phrase – and the Bernstein piece was likely not in Björk’s head when she wrote “New World.”

Why then, was this resemblance significant to me? Because suddenly before me was a link between von Trier’s relentless parable and Voltaire’s iconic novel Candide. In what way was Selma a Candide? She certainly possesses the same guileless optimism, and both are victimized by society’s higher authorities (Candide by the army, the Inquisition, and scholastic philosophy, Selma by a desperate police officer and a barbaric justice system). There is also a similarity to be glimpsed, I believe, between the two auteurs in question. In many ways, von Trier strikes me as a modern Voltaire, eager to court controversy and expose the limits and follies of humanity’s attempts to control its own fate. Like him or hate him – and recall that Voltaire was truly hated in his own day – von Trier has sparked more intense debates than any director since Roman Polanski, and usually for artistic, not personal, reasons.

Thinking of von Trier – who famously co-authored the Dogme 95 manifesto, outlawing, among many other things, a separate musical soundtrack – brings me to the question of films that use music sparingly or not at all. The Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men is a masterful example of this. As I recall, there’s maybe a few plaintive guitar notes over the opening credits (to be honest, I arrived at the theatre two minutes late when I saw it). From that point to the closing credits, there’s not a note of music unless it’s playing, say, on a jukebox or car radio within a scene (what film scholars call “diegetic sound”). What we get instead is a symphony of incidental sound – keys turning in locks, tires screeching on the pavement outside, slow footsteps moving with cold inevitability down a hotel hallway. All of these sounds are carefully mixed with respect to volume and placement in the stereo environment (coming from your left, right, behind you, etc.), and calibrated to ratchet up the tension and thrill of the story. The most recent film I watched, in fact, had no music at all, not even in the opening or closing credits. It was the Dardenne brothers’ The Son (Le Fils), from 2002, which deals with a man and a teenage boy, and the tragic history that binds them together. The sound here is not as artfully crafted as in No Country. Rather, the absence of musical, emotional cues forces the viewer to look closer, to try to guess the character’s secrets, to breathe with them. The visual composition of the film, following characters from behind, rarely allowing frontal views or facial close-ups, creates more mystery and doubt than any tremolo strings or electronic soundscapes could have.

Films with this level of daring, which defy the musical expectations of the audience, are the exception, and few are as successful as the two I’ve mentioned. The default mode in most movies, whatever the artistic or commercial ambitions, is to use music as little more than wallpaper, or as not-so-subtle hints to the audience, telegraphing “This is exciting!” or “This is sad!” There’s nothing like watching an in-flight movie without headphones to make you appreciate how heavily most directors rely on music to carry the emotional burden of their story. Collaborations between two independent-minded artists like Alfred Hitchcock and composer Bernard Herrmann, or more recently Paul Thomas Anderson and Jonny Greenwood (for There Will Be Blood) are all too rare, but they point to the central need for dialogue, on equal or at least interdependent terms, between image and sound. Every time a composer reads a script or sits down with a rough cut of a film, the possibility exists, however fleetingly, for a new fusion: of Apollonian visual art, which haunts our individual dreams, and of Dionysian musical experience, which possesses us collectively for two hours in the dark.

PHOTO: Still from Dancer in the Dark

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