Bright Lights Film Journal

False Consonance and False Consciousness: Contrarian Notes on the Ideology of Film Music

“Defenseless against music, I must submit to its despotism and, depending on its whim, be god or garbage.”

Pickford’s paradoxical comment, used by Kevin Brownlow to conclude The Parade’s Gone By (1968) and, complementarily, by Walter Kerr to open The Silent Clowns (1975), speaks an almost ghostly truth that has long intrigued me. As an epitaph, it renders tragic the false optimisms of fin de siècle technologies that presumed not merely a historic progress tramping in step to the lensmaking of an Edison or the Lumières, but a bogus evolution of beauty that equates expressivity with an increase of noise. As a prologue, Pickford’s comment consigns future shock and techno-fetishism to reasoned retrospect — progress is but Enlightenment illusion, and Malevich came centuries after Rembrandt, after all. To return to a truly silent cinema — one lacking even clunky pianofortes bragging of the Lumières’ provincial charms — is neither an elegiac nor esoteric move but a refinement, an archaeology of the preverbal image, that, for a brief early 20th-century moment, subordinated melos to drama. Indeed, early silent cinema audiences were leery of Edison’s pioneering sound film experiments, which threatened to contaminate the immaculacy of the image; they knew enough about incidental music from the 19th-century stage, and wanted quiet. Our ancestor’s cinema was more mythic than ours only because it, in godlike silence, did not beg to be understood.

I still remember palpably the balmy spring night I, as a still-cinephilic college student, first saw Vidor’s The Crowd (1928) in dead silence, with the music track (and its hectoring sentimentalism) intentionally dumbed by the professor — an act whose didactic, purist intention I appreciated only years later. The silence seduced me toward the screen’s superfice, prodding me to redefine Vidor’s grainy, ingrained ephemera as neither dated nor (in an equally condescending way) timeless, but as timely, fleeting, utterly immediate. I overlooked the anticlimactic and nonsensical thesis of The Crowd‘s denouement, which, like Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and much of Woody Allen, reassures us the cinema is our great escapist solace; it was enough that I sweated beautifully in darkness to understand imageries unhampered by artificial rhythms beating plot progressions into my head and consonant harmonies egging on my nervous system’s emotive reflexes. Time passed truly and unnoticed, accompanied only by a soundtrack of coughs and squeaking chairs — the nervous, drifting artifacts of a John Cagean pseudosociology. This ascetic unmusicality, the sign of cinema’s origin and, for Pickford, its logical terminus, had nothing of the ideological puritanism of the 8mm avant-garde: this wasn’t a reactionary austerity. To watch The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) with a score of Gregorian chants, religious hymns, or even choral works by Ligeti may be effective — but to watch it in silence is truthful.

My steady, elitist, and righteous diet of Hindemith (right), Schnittke, Nono, Penderecki, Dallapiccola, myriad serialists, a few post-spectralists, and so forth has blessedly poisoned me to the religion of mainstream film music. Film composers — if they were moral creatures — would do well to remember the liberated spirit that prompted Hindemith to note in the fourth movement of his opus 25 Solo Viola Sonata that “tonal beauty is incidental.” If lately my thoughts flee to the ethers of atonality, it is because my poor immune system cannot withstand Michael Nyman’s cool minimalism or Thomas Newman’s hypnotic chimes, particularly when layered over a too-receptive film image.1 This audiovisual congruence — Hollywood’s pessimistic legacy to the world — suffocates with its drastic comprehensibility, with a finitude that, mind you, is manufactured on our behalf. Filmmakers, faithless in their images’ power to communicate, leave nothing to silent chance, and ensure that our allegedly “subjective” identifications (with characters) are in fact as objectivized (by unambiguously goading music) as possible. Such is the cinema’s magnanimity!

The extradiegetic score, certainly, presents a paradox. On the one hand, it is the alienation naturalists and documentarians have railed against, for as we are continually aware of the score’s machinations and manipulations, it places onscreen actions in ironic quotation marks (let no psychoanalyst say we, oblivious fools, are subliminally affected by a score — the subliminal is not measured in Dolby decibels). On the other hand, a score’s dictatorial congruity with an image’s emotional content denies us any possibility of arguing against the text’s meaning. The music’s consonance dispels all hermeneutic tensions, negating our chance to engage in a dialectical relationship with the film — head-scratching dissonances and incongruities presumably will lead us not into chaos but communism.

Film music is generally misdiagnosed as an aesthetic problem: how does one maximize through music the expressivity of a scene? Rarely is it appreciated for the moral problem that a Sidney Lumet or Satyajit Ray recognized it to be: how can the sparest possible use of music maximize the audience’s imaginative interaction with the image? We know the film score “aids” our comprehension only to the degree it limits us; every note uttered reduces the opportune spaces of interpretation, just as each word written limits the horizons of the blank page. Structurally and in terms of content, most scores’ coercions are no different from the pedantry of a PBS voiceover, or the WASP narration to an elementary school filmstrip about milking livestock. But must all audiovisual experiences be rebellious, presenting sound-image incongruities that allow for dialectical (and therefore moral) engagement? If such musical Marxism seems, admittedly, too ideologically taxing for me, I cannot ask audiences to forego the vulgar and enticing intelligibility of run-of-the-mill film scores, which reuse familiar harmonies and orchestrations the way newspaper reviewers repeat heartening adjectives.

The common man’s2 need for musical intelligibility and exposition (of origins, causes, motives, etc.) bubbles from that familiar sludge of theosophy and empiricism left over from the Enlightenment; the need is irrational in its dependence on heaven-sent explanations of actions (i.e., extradiegetic music), yet (pseudo-) rational in its demand for narratives that pass for generic realism. Our primary antidote for this Enlightenment has been, sadly, Dogme’s hyperrationality, which decries the mysticism of extradiegetic music while raising naturalist ambient sound to cult status (a reactionary gesture whose death we’ve awaited for some time). Yet I won’t disparage the common man’s mediocrity. To the contrary, I’ll celebrate it, for his demand for common-denominator explicability is ironically our mightiest bulwark against excessive musical sentiment. The common man accepts narrative sentimentality unblinkingly — ideal romances and gory murders, no matter how oft-repeated, never faze him as long as they are believably generic. This believability, however, is in turn governed by the score’s degree of “appropriateness”: the instant the violins swell slightly too loudly as the lovers interlock, or the timpani rolls a second overlong when the gunslinger is nobly felled, disbelief becomes unsuspended, and something remarkable happens — the common man blushes. His very blood revolts. The conventions to which he’d sworn (ir)rational allegiance are denuded, and not through qualitative critique but a matter of slight quantitative degree. The common man’s shame — inherited from bad religion — rescues him with skepticism.

Thus does the embarrassment of film music’s overenthusiastic consonance make the common man, in his blushes, a reluctant philosopher speaking strangely of subtlety and emotional restraint. Why must all the trombones bray when the rubbed-out mobster’s innards spill onto the checkered tablecloth? Doesn’t every Western sound too American? What is that primordial relationship between oral eroticism and unison strings con affetto? (How Hollywood disgraced every black-and-white kiss!) Why should that tremolo in the bass magically pull Joan Crawford’s eyebrows together? Perhaps it isn’t redundant for a ghost to play the Theremin! Taste and discernment soon return to the harmonically abused common man. He knows, suddenly, when he’s being hoodwinked — he knows, perhaps, many things. He discovers his shame has utilitarian value, for it reveals when his heroes (those in Hollywood, let’s say) have underestimated even him. Hans Zimmer’s cruddy French horns suddenly restore his soul, and surfeits of cymbal crashes awaken his mind. Yet, as he mocks sentimental excess, he has no formula or articulate plan — his untrained palate only knows its tastes by trial and error. But if his humanist renaissance is nothing more than blind self-interest, he nevertheless, like a heckler bullying a bully, subordinates an inferior text to the crudeness of his ego, demystifying what never deserved mystification at all.

I won’t castigate, therefore, the barefaced and wholly derivative Wagnerian-Straussian tonalities imported uncritically into post-Steiner film composition (as I once did). On the contrary, I believe the “award-winning” aesthetic insults of a Hans Zimmer are vital to the maintenance of democracy, for their occasional missteps mature even the lowliest of men, goading them into a critical awareness of false authority and forced conformities. The musical hack, then, has his valued place. He may be pitied but shouldn’t be disparaged overmuch, for even mediocrity, as every hash-slinger knows, can be a well-practiced art. But the musical hack’s mistakes are valuable in ways other craftsmen’s errors are not, for music still holds us, foolishly, in romantic thrall. We don’t embarrass at the mereness of a middling carpenter’s woodwork, for his bar stools and hutches are supposed to be base imitations of Platonic ideality. But modernity, though declassing the artisan, hasn’t interfered with our utopian notions of music-making, the least comprehensible of the arts. Our romanticism, applied to second-rate hacks, thus empowers them to be dreamy frauds.

The clever absence of a film score preempts our musical depression, and even if they become inevitably reactionary, the organic silences of The Birds (1963) or even The China Syndrome3 (1979) refresh and comfort. The ascetic O.K. Corral shootout in Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946) — where gunfire and mortality are fully emancipated from banalities of musical punctuation — probably seemed “artistic” in the ’40s, but is positively rejuvenating today. For those who believe action sequences are incomplete without orchestral upholstery, I recommend the still-remarkable dogfights and zeppelin raids of Hell’s Angels (1930, above), in which one hears rippling breeze, whirring motors, and thudding flak unimpeded by tuneful strains of floating heroism. As cameras mounted on WWI biplanes spinning out of control offer dizzying views of blue-tinted sky, the striking verisimilitude of flight renders childish and impotent the synthetic imaginations of CGI, while the manic swirl of sky seems “experimental” only because it’s silent.

Directors trained in the theater and the Golden Age of Television, on the other hand, knew how to exploit quietude to an austere fault. The pregnant, self-important silences of Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men (1957), The Pawnbroker (1965), and The Verdict (1982) are “uncinematic” only insofar as their silences betoken the caged stillness of the physically bounded stage and a hushed, impeccably dressed audience; on the panoramic screen, this elite stillness becomes intolerable, asphyxiating. Whereas Dogme’s negation of extradiegetic music is a naturalist neurosis, for Lumet it is an agnostic Stoicism, wherein God is as silent as the music that never comes (thus does Rod Steiger prove God’s existence in The Pawnbroker by finally, and wordlessly, crucifying himself). But perhaps the most telling moments of musical silence are now journalistic: when the Newshour with Jim Lehrer rolls out its slideshow of Iraq-fallen soldiers in respectful, unaestheticized silence, we become only more self-conscious, as if the quiet were a chimerical national conscience coercing our guiltiest, most insincere salute.

A good film, true enough, can resist a crippling score, if not always happily. Stagecoach (1939) is oak-solid enough to survive Gerard Carbonara’s childish overuse of cavalry-themed trumpet calls, but we easily imagine the perfect film Ford could have made without such melodic irresponsibility.4 On rare occasions does a judicious score oxygenate rather than suffocate its visual counterpoint, despite a literal consonance: though it apes the rhythms of Reggio’s images, Glass’s minimalist pulse improves, and not merely anchors, Koyaanisqatsi (1982). Useful film music surprises our expectations and betrays social, cultural, and nationalistic associations: Kurosawa was wise to request from Takemitsu Mahlerian awesomeness for Ran‘s (1985) battle scenes rather than the orientalist pluckings that, in more recent years, have escorted martial arts epics across international5 borders (Tan Dun’s scores are Exhibit A). In terms of experimental cinema, music should be multivalent, operating both surreally and congruently, just as the jazz drummer placed in the midst of Weekend‘s (1967) revolutionary forest signifies geographical incongruousness and thematic consonance (if we assume a Caucasian youth’s jazz drumming, for Godard, signifies solidarity between French anarchists and African anti-colonialists). Such multivalence must be the case, since experimentalism, by definition, is ambiguous. Yet film composition’s greatest challenge remains the creation of a truly expressionistic score for a straightforward narrative, one whose melodies neither coerce nor pander to our pathos, but instead reveal the latent, immaterial, and non-visual meanings film cannot access. Morricone, of course, is our prime example, for he rationalizes Leone’s eccentrism, making deeply emotional (or humorous) gestures that would otherwise be drowned in surface sadism. Gian Maria Volantè’s haunting music-box theme in For a Few Dollars More (1965) becomes shorthand for a sad, lost humanity that reverberates through, and echoes far past, Leone’s dirty sarcasm. Meanwhile, the famous score of Duck, You Sucker (1971) is perhaps cinema’s greatest, for its juxtapositions of weird jokiness and stunned wistfulness disclose emotions even deeper than those betokened by the rare tear that Rod Steiger, upon the discovery of his massacred peasant family, cannot resist shedding.

If expressionism should be cinema’s savior, I look toward filmed opera as a possible way of reconciling image and sound as equals, not as visual prerequisite and musical supplement (though, of course, both can’t come into being simultaneously, as we know from Strauss’s Capriccio). If the philistine objects to opera because its arias and choruses violate dogmas of realistic speech, he is, though mentally limited, not entirely misguided; swooning romanticism did destroy opera, making it nearly as ripe for mockery as Hans Zimmer’s musical hammer-blows. My convictions were only reinforced after switching off Barbara Willis Sweete’s film version of Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet (2002, above), which consisted of scene after scene of woeful characters pining by castle windows and gamboling in gowns through meadows, pausing only to breathe arias in attractive courtyards. Since old Gounod’s music is unsalvageably romantic, it requires, at least, an expressionist staging: build a cross-section of four windowsills in the middle of an otherwise empty stage, have the characters take ironic turns singing their songs at each window-station, and the music suddenly improves.

At present, Joachim Hess’s film version of Penderecki’s The Devils of Loudon (1969) represents to me a successful musical film, whose music, owing to its operatic source, is neither strictly diegetic nor extradiegetic in the traditional sense. The true, anti-Christian story of the torture and execution of unchaste 17th-century priest Urbain Grandier, chronicled previously by Huxley in 1952, John Robert Whiting in 1961, and Ken Russell in 1971, is here brought to life with an opera score that sounds more “cinematic” than any film score around. Moreover, Penderecki’s atonality, alternating stretches of mysterious calm with outbursts of rending violence, actually works better onscreen than on recording, for its music evokes a horrific visual sense that demands dramatization. When the story’s ridiculous arbiters of reason, a bespectacled chemist and a pious surgeon, decapitate and hang village idiots, they are accompanied by electronic instruments and frantic pizzicati that portend satire more than terror. When the surgeon applies his giant scientific enema to expunge evil from the bowels of the allegedly possessed and spread-eagled Mother Superior, we hear a tormented instrumental interlude of brass, percussion, and wild glissandi drown out her likely and futile cries to a merciful God. Soon, we forget whether the music is sung (or lip-synched) by onscreen characters or emanates from beyond the mystic corners of the screen; Jean-Marie Straub’s objectivist condemnations of post-synchronization become irrelevant when a live orchestra is incapable of following characters from scene to scene. In the end, my mind settles happily on Penderecki’s Mother Superior — as voiceless to God as conventional film music is deafening to us — imagining in her delirious inquisition that she is one of Grandier’s tarts rolling in a thorny hell, stacking her body atop those of her sister-nuns to form an obscene fleshly altar, such that “a black mass was celebrated on their backs.” As ecstatic demons flock around her, the holy Mother at last shouts the musical call of a starry sanity — “God is dead! I have found peace at last.”

Note: This brief article is, in a sense, a gloss on previous ideas about audiovisual (in)congruity explored in a longer essay, “How to Murder John Williams: Toward an Ideology of Contrapuntal Antirealism.”

  1. C.f., Newman’s score for American Beauty (1999), etc. []
  2. I adopt the androcentric pronoun intentionally, since this business of empiric realism is the inheritance of white men. []
  3. Sadly, The China Syndrome has a lamentable opening theme song; nevertheless, because it is only used as a framing device for the opening credits, it is eternified and therefore exists beyond the film’s narrative properties. That the final credits roll in dignified silence reinforces the stupefaction of the opening ’70s pop song. []
  4. Unfortunately, Sam Peckinpah did not live to see the wide release of his director’s cut of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), which restored silence to the scenes where Peckinpah had been forced to use Bob Dylan tunes. []
  5. Must I now always say the politically correct “transnational”? No — I mean international. []