Friday, March 28, 2014

Richard Brody Sounds Off About Music in Movies

Earlier this week, Richard Brody, film critic for the New Yorker, posted a piece about how Lars von Trier had literally RUINED Franck and Handel for him. I'm exaggerating, but less than you think.  Brody also made some bold claims about the role of music in film.  I guess he has that right, as a film critic, but I don't think that the situation is as rigid at this article might lead one to believe.  For example:

For better or worse, there’s an entire realm of music that becomes indissociable from the movies in which it’s used. The touchstone for the phenomenon is when it’s impossible to hear the music in any context without the movie scene in which it’s featured coming to mind.

Better.  Do you need some proof?

There is so much good here, where to begin?  The piece is Schumann's Piano Quartet, op. 44, second movement.  It is a riff on the Beethovenian funeral march, as seen in Beethoven's Third Symphony, which you can tell from the key and the form and the march-like elements at the end of this film clip (around 1:56).  The funeral march is important because our character, Alexander, will attend two family funerals in this film, so it is foreshadowing some of the most important plot events.   

But there's more!  This is not the beginning of the movement.  The movement is in rondo form, which is what happens when you keep returning to the opening section throughout.  The part that we hear at the end of the clip (around 1:56) has been heard before, but Bergman cut it out so that we begin with the lush yet melancholic string part that opens the B section.  I think that this is ingenious.  While the scene opens with flowing water, we quickly shift to Alexander playing with his theater characters in a miniaturized stage (the stage is also an important part of the movie).  As he walks around his home, we see a richly-decorated room with intricate and beautiful furnishings (1:48!).

Yet we know all of this is ephemeral, and the music gives that away from the start.  This section of the movement never settles in terms of harmony or rhythm.  The melody is very clear and could be harmonized in a simple way, but instead, Schumann opts for a relatively sophisticated harmonization that does not come to a clear conclusion (this is typical of Schumann's style, but particularly poignant here).  Furthermore, the piano and strings are working against each other in terms of rhythm: the piano part is in a hemiola with the inner strings, which is subtle enough that the ear does not notice right away, but distinct enough that it is hard for the listener to rest.  As the movie progresses, this beautiful home also becomes ephemeral, as Fanny and Alexander move to a new place and a sad, difficult life.  This is musical nostalgia, in a way, because it is too delicate to settle. 

Scorsese did the exact same thing in Goodfellas when he drew on the piano exit from 'Layla,' another piece that features the same harmonic qualities (never quite comes together), while integrating a melodic line that has too much motion to establish stability.  This melody is also rife with suspensions that lend a feeling of incompleteness; while they do resolve, they don't resolve where they should, which creates an effect of longing.  In terms of harmony, there should be a clear V_I motion to cadence, but there isn't because of that Bb chord that doesn't belong.  That's how you make musical nostalgia, in a nutshell.  What is clear from this moment in the film is that things will never be the same; the life that the Goodfellas have led is drawing to a close and cannot be recaptured.  Indeed, this scene marks the definitive break between Jimmy as a potentially respectable character (he has murdered everyone around him instead of giving them their due) and Tommy (SPOILER ALERT: he doesn't get made).  The silence in the score immediately prior to the piano exit adds to the effectiveness because your ear is drawn to the music right away:

Back to Bergman: at the end of the clip, we realize that Alexander is alone, wandering through the house and calling out the names of his sister, nanny, and others.  No one responds to him--it is in this section that the funeral music also begins.  Alexander will later learn that he is never fully alone, that the ghosts of his past (funereal music) are always with him and that he cannot escape them.  But now, as a child, he can have a moment that I think we understand to be an uncertainty.  He walks around the house and the music loses its lushness.  I am not sure if on first viewing this seems like a form of loneliness--it has been too long since I viewed this with fresh eyes, and I can only see connections with what is to come--but it is clear that, at least for now, he is alone, and the music is sparse as well.

Why do I remember these scenes so keenly?  Because they are good.  They are perfect associations with these moments, both in terms of its musical content and foreshadowing.  After reading Brody's piece, I tried to think of a bad association between film and music, and I was unable to do so off the top of my head.  I suspect that part of what Brody is reacting to here is his proximity to Nymphomaniac, and that with time, his inability to dissociate will subside.  This, to me, is what differentiates good and bad in terms of musical usage.  The good sticks with you.  The bad fades, maybe with time, but it will fade.

I take great umbrage with the following statement in the Brody article:

That’s the argument in favor of the score composed for a movie: it comes with no associations and derives its identity from the film in which it’s used. For that matter, it exists in order to emphasize the moods and emotions of the specific movie—which is why, for most good movies, the score is superfluous (and watching a scored movie silent is a crucial test of its merit).
 Disagree.  Okay, I don't disagree with an argument for original film music, that's fine.  I would argue that pre-existing music used well can do an equally good (if not better) job, as in the cases I outlined above.  However, I disagree wholeheartedly with the idea that 'it comes with no associations.'  I'm bringing out the big guns here and you better go get your DVD of Star Wars, Episode IV, 'A New Hope' because I am not playing (and I couldn't find clips online).  Two examples should suffice.

First, when the droids crash onto Tatooine there is a scene where they have some dialog, then they take off in different directions.  After the fade (10:29), you hear a vaguely Stravinskian accompaniment in the score, by which I mean something that sounds like it is the opening of part 2 of The Rite of Spring:

This works in Star Wars because it is doing exactly what it is supposed to do in Rite of Spring.  We are disoriented in terms of harmony, melody, and meter.  We don't know what is happening, where we are going, or why.  The music mimics the experience of the droids and what we know right away is that they are on a strange planet, heading off into directions unknown--we even see the backbone of a giant skeleton (10:50), which might remind listeners of Fantasia and the dinosaur scene that also uses Rite of Spring, arguably for the same sonic qualities.  I am not knocking John Williams for being Stravinsky-esque here.  On the contrary, I think that a big part of his success as a film composer is his ability to capture moments sonically by selecting the best composers to parody (in the non-comic sense) at the right moments.  This is the ideal place to borrow a few techniques from Stravinsky because the overall effect is the same.

Now, you might be able to glean the general gist of this scene without the soundtrack--which Brody suggests is the acid test for good film-making--but I would still argue that it aids the overall understanding of the film a great deal.  Silent, this scene is not as effective, because you do not have the same sense of displacement and isolation.  My next example, though, is unquestionably ameliorated (IMHO) because there is music.  It is the moment when Luke meets old Ben Kenobi (29:40).  If you haven't watched it in a while, go grab your DVDs and check it out (what?  You don't have a copy of Star Wars on DVD?  Then go buy them and join us again!).  What we hear is the same theme that we heard earlier (25:46), as Luke gazed off into the far-away sky and dreamed of exciting adventures:

Look at me, fostering delusions of grandeur!

When we first hear this musical line, it is in a solo French horn to start, then the strings swell in and take it over.  We have the feeling that Luke can be the hero and leave this dusty, desert planet.  But when we hear this theme with Ben Kenobi, the effect is changed.  The harp part leading into the line gives the sense that something (or someone) important has been unveiled, but there is a sinister harmony underneath the melody that does not change when it should.  Instead, it makes the line unstable, taking away its easy dreams of heroism.  If Luke is going to have adventures, perhaps they will be less simple than he thought at first.  Perhaps there is more complexity in the world around him than he saw as a farm boy.  And of course, all of this is true.

Would this work without the soundtrack?  Maybe, but I would suggest that the film would lose a vital part of its nuance.  And isn't this part of what makes the film good in the first place?  To isolate (or exclude) one element from the whole seems to detract from the overall experience instead of enriching it and a musical soundtrack, as seen in these cases, can be very enriching indeed.

1 comment:

  1. "Look at me! I'm fostering delusions of grandeur!" LOL.