July 21, 2004

Silence is Golden

Earlier this week, Matt and one of our commenters discussed how Stanley Kubrick used classical music in his movies, and I was reminded of their exchange today when I came across a Granta article by Adam Mars-Jones that includes the following passage:

Spielberg took over from Stanley Kubrick a typically slow-brewing project, only partly prepared when he died—AI. If Kubrick had made it, the music score would certainly have been less saccharine. Kubrick enjoyed using pre-existing pieces of music (at least once cancelling a commissioned score during editing), and used them in longer extracts than has ever been the fashion. Whether it's Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta in The Shining or Ligeti's Musica Ricercata in Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick used substantial stretches. It's as if he set himself the challenge of absorbing the energy of the music into his visuals without cheating by chopping it up.

During the editing of 2001, Kubrick received an advance pressing of a record by the Berlin Philharmonic from his friend Herbert von Karajan. It included music by both Johann ('Blue Danube') and Richard (Also Sprach Zarathustra) Strauss. He started playing it in the editing suite with no thought—to start with—of its bizarre appropriateness. If this story is true, then it seems that music was an area where the great control freak could allow himself to be seduced into spontaneity. After excluding chance so single-mindedly from his project Kubrick could let it back in at the last moment, and even enjoy playing with it.

2001 is remarkable for Kubrick's use of the present that Karajan sent. Johann Strauss's magnificently insipid waltz loses all its sentiment when it's made to accompany a sequence of docking with a space station. Richard Strauss's grand gestures seem quite modest, really, when configured as a fanfare to eternity. But the film is also remarkable for its fidelity to silence. For once in the movies, engines roaring in a vacuum make no sound. Infinity isn't given an echo just because we're more comfortable with that illusion. Music and silence, bland actors and overwhelming sets—everything contributes to Kubrick's vision of a cosmos full of grandeur and devoid of personality, full of emptiness and waiting.

A dozen years later, the advertising campaign for Alien warned that 'In space no one can hear you scream'. But every engine-note and explosion in the film was helpfully relayed to the audience's ears through a conducting medium that didn't exist.

What intrigued me most about the article wasn't its passage on Kubrick, however, but its more general argument:

When music is everywhere in a film, audiences feel less rather than more. A case in point would be a mildly successful, mildly fizzling blockbuster from 2000, The Perfect Storm (directed by Wolfgang 'Das Boot' Petersen), a story of fishermen's ordeals in extreme conditions at sea. It's sometimes hard to hear the roaring of the winds over the lachrymose raging of the orchestra. The composer is James Horner, whose most famous score was also for a marine disaster—but at least Titanic, in James Cameron's vision, was a romance (a romance with 1,503 real deaths used as the backdrop for a single fictional one, but a romance all the same). The Perfect Storm is based on a true story and aspires to tragedy, but Horner's score in its lushness and sweep is jarringly wrong. Petersen doesn't even have the excuse that the music is there to hide the weakness of the special effects—the special effects are the most impressive parts of the film. So why have music there at all? The presence of music on a soundtrack always tells us we're at a distance from the natural world (which is why music accompanying wildlife documentaries feels so tacky and suspect). Every dollar spent on the music neutralizes a thousand spent on the visual effects, the digitized mountains of water which would be awe-inspiring if they were only let alone.

The omnipresence of music in films is part of a general cultural pattern of obliterating silence, in lifts, airports, shopping centres, lobbies and restaurants.

Mars-Jones, I believe, is right--and I agree with him that one of Master and Commander's greatest strengths was the subtlety of its score. (I kept expecting the movie to devolve into a chase scene with dramatic music, but Peter Weir kept both the movie's action and its soundtrack much more restrained and refined.)

The omnipresence of music in the movies is also connected with another unfortunate trend, I'd argue: the low quality of contemporary movie dialogue.

I loved Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, for example, but I think it's a shame that the inspirational speeches that ended the series's first two installments were kind of dull in and of themselves, and depended on the movie's score for their emotional impact. The first such scene, in which we flash back to Gandalf's words in Moria, worked reasonably well for me, in part because the flashback was short and I'm a big Ian McKellen fan; the second speech, in which Sam reminds Frodo of the reason for their quest, struck me as trite and un-Tolkienish. The second scene felt a little manufactured, not least because it depended on the score rather than on the writing or the acting. (It would be nice if Jackson would find a new screenwriter for future projects--since writing was probably the biggest weakness in Lord of the Rings--but I think this is unlikely, since most of his movies were co-written by his wife.)

I'm not, of course, arguing that all movie music is bad. But plenty of mediocre directors depend on the score to set the mood and cue viewers in about how they should feel; they don't have much faith in their viewers, on the one hand, or in their writers and actors, on the other. One of the things that impressed me most about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was that its director, Michel Gondry, included several long conversations without musical accompaniment; The Triplets of Belleville, moreover, had a score that combined classical music, familiar pop music, and a catchy original song, but it also featured several lengthy scenes with no music at all. I wish that more movie directors had as much faith in their audiences!

Posted by Ed at July 21, 2004 04:08 PM

Hello folks nice blog youre running

Posted by: lolita at January 19, 2005 08:54 PM
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