Sunday, June 24, 2007

Musically Mapping Affect: Revisioning the Film Score Part II


In my previous piece on film scores, I argued that sound, i.e. effects, dialogue, music, etc. is an integral part of filmmaking and film viewing. Unfortunately, the significance of sound is often relegated to the background of film studies in favor of the more visible components of an image. What needs to take place is a forefronting of cinematic sound, with an inquiry into its specific relationship to those visible aspects of the moving image. Of course, this isn't easy. The moving parts of images are hard enough to break down without account for sound; nevertheless, the unique connection of sound and image -- despite representing a deeply intricate relationship culminating in the interpretation of movement and narrative -- comes relatively easy for most viewers when it comes to interpretation. Yet even for your typical moviegoer who is uninterested in analysis, the emphasis is still on the visual nature of cinematic images, and rightfully so. Sound, I would argue, is part of the image.

Why? Because (at least in the case of a score) it is not meant to be diagetically connected to the world of the film, but instead exists for the viewer to better comprehend the emotion of a particular moment or character. Much like camera angles, colors, and other visual aspects processed on an unconscious level of cognition and interpretation, the score often helps the viewer to identify with a character as well as the "world" of the film. In that sense, the music aids in creating an atmosphere or mood, and, together with the images, moves at a certain speed, operates at a certain volume and complexity to form a feeling of the space created by the visible image. The music allows the spectator to inhabit the four corners of the screen, which is not to say that the image itself can't do that, because it can. Rather, a score can evoke something in image that is either already there or perhaps not there. The viewer registers the movements on screen and the sounds in the music to anticipate certain motions in the narratives, while also engage in the world that the characters inhabit.

Beyond its representative qualities, music also enables the spectator to more easily process the nature of the moving images. It can easily provoke a response from the spectator virtually whenever it wants. For some, this means that the music would "follows the action" of the image, a la mickey mousing. At Lost in Negative Space, Peet Gelderblom examines two dominant forms of scoring, underscoring and the aforementioned mickey-mousing. But is there really a difference? He explains:

"When a composer drums up a frenetic, percussive score to support a thrilling car chase, or lays an elegiac theme over a melancholic tableau, his or her technique isn’t that far removed from Mickey Mousing. The music still follows and punctuates the visuals–only the beats are longer.... Sometimes film music is supposed to take a back seat or provide its own commentary on what happens in the picture. Sometimes film music needs to work in tandem with the visuals to help the viewer relate with the characters or a given situation. Both approaches are legitimate."

Peet pointedly observes that the two approaches are not all that different. They are perhaps two sides of the same coin insofar that they appear to be opposites working against one another, but are instead two approaches bowing to the same overriding logic of affect and narrative consumption. In the case of mickey-mousing, in which a composer synchs the beats in the music precisely to the action on screen, this may come in the form of a cymbals crash or punctuation in the the brass as the hero punches the villain; or the musical rhythym can be set to the cutting between shots; or perhaps to mimic the physical movement on screen, e.g. a character tiptoeing as scored by plucking strings. These are all exaggerated examples of things that are (more often than not) much more subtle in the overall stream of interpretation associated with the movement of images as they contribute to an overall narrative. The line between mickey-mousing and underscoring can become blurred in some instances, as Peet points out in his comments about Vertigo, one of the great contributions to film music and cinema as a medium). In sequences involving several dramatic shifts in tempo, rhythym, and style, the music may not necessarily capture the key moments of impact in a given movement or cut, but instead form a momentous feeling that may result from a particular action or a building moment.

For example, the truck chase from Raiders of the Lost Ark is a great example of music that builds continuum of thematic ideas. (YouTube link here. Take note that this is not an ideal viewing experience. This clip exemplifies everything that's good and bad about YouTube... it's available to watch on the web, but anyone who knows the scene should know the music doesn't sound right.) Some of the musical ideas in this sequence are already established previously in the film (still, others are not) that mirror the action while also building states of intensity, humor, and speed between moments of impact, during which composer John Williams builds a feeling of visual structure. While most of the shots during the desert chase involve shifts in musical momentum, each time Williams almost seamlessly changes direction and tempo. His changes are stark, but they somehow feel right.

The beginning of the chase has Indiana Jones atop his horse in a long shot, the dust rising behind him as the horse gallops to a triumphant long brass rendition of the Raiders March.

The next shot is from the other side of Indiana, glaring past him into the chasm through which the armed vehicular escort of the Ark is moving. As Indiana -- forefront, bottom of the shot -- turns his head to look down on the cars and trucks, the brass rises in a moment which says "there you are!", as if Jones knows both exactly what he's doing but is also completely "making up as he goes." That sense may have already been in shot without the music, but the score makes the brief change of direction part of the motion already being built in the movements and music together.

After this, there is just enough time for one more Raiders March rendition before Indiana and the music stop at the edge of cliff. But this moment of silence accompanying Indy's dust-surrounded face is short-lived.

With a cut to the horse running down the mountain, the score picks up once more in charging militaristic fashion; the snare drums perfectly match to the horse's hoofs digging into the sand as they hurtle down the side of the mountain and the brass powerfully belts out a new motif that continues through the duration of the chase but in different permutations. Williams continues along this hard-edged path as the Nazis realize what's happening and open fire on Inday while his horse runs alongside the truck. Although guns are fired at Jones, the music maintains its same rhthym as if to suggest that this is only the beginning and that we have a long way to go despite the close encounter with bullets. Indy makes his way off the horse in heroic fashion and then Williams' score shifts course, becoming more punchy and brass-oriented.

There is a hint more of a rugged spirit with the music slowing down and changing direction as Indy engages in hand-to-hand combat with those in the driver and his accompanying passenger. While Indy drives along with the nazi, the music is playful but at the same time adventurous so as to keep up with the pace of the scene, since there is still much at stake. They fight and drive as the truck moves frantically through towns, swerving from one side of the rode to the other, during which time the score remains playful but fuses that humorous spirit with adventuruous brass chords.

Later in the chase, after several minutes of lone brass renditions of the Raiders March as Indy easily disposes of nazi vermin, a real threat is introduced both visually and musically. After several failed attempts by the nazis in the back of the truck to penetrate the driver's seat (where Indy is driving), one nazi slips through unnoticed -- accompanied by rising high brass statements deviating from the pre-established rhthym -- and shoots Indy in the arm. Interestingly, when Indy is actually shot, the score moves along very high woodwinds (not your typical choice for a hero getting shot), before moving into a rumbling, slow rhythmic motif on low brass notes and deep sustained notes of counterpoint.

The music builds this idea until one more nazi journeys across the roof of the truck (notice the great overhead shot of the truck, perfectly timed to the biggest build-up of the motif), ultimately making his way into the drivers seat, where he persists at wounding Indy further. The rest of the sequence involves Indy's personal duel with the last nazi on the truck, during which he is hurled over the front of the truck and then climbs underneath the truck to come back at him from behind. (It's much better on screen than in words, I swear.)

At this point, the music moves from disbelief (momentary swirling winds and strings as he moves under the truck) to a complete romancing of our hero's rather unorthodox acts of heroism as it returns to a more upbeat rendition of the same motif stated after he is shot. As the viewer begins to realize that Indy's coming back, Williams works the secondary, more heroic counterpoint section of the Raiders march into the pre-existing motif which had been building since he got shot. When Indy finally gets back into the driver's seat to battle the nazi once more, we know this time it's different. The exact same motif is used, only in a more enthusiastic, less distressed pattern, as Indy throws the nazi over the hood of the vehicle. At this point, the battles is won and Indy aggressively changes gears to go after the lead car (where the arch-villains reside). To assist in the release, Williams unleashes a powerful version of the seconday theme of the Raiders march now that the viewer can finally experience the climax towards which the entire sequence was building (visually and musically) since the beginning.

After this visual and musical release, Spielberg cuts to a shot of Indy still driving the vehicle, with a smile on his face that turns to a frown aftger he realizes the pain he's in from the gun shot wound. Williams then tones down the score, easing the viewer back into her/his seat in a slow coming down involving mostly woowinds and brass, bringing to mind a sense of relief but the pain Jones now feels. We know from the visuals and music that the battle is still now over.

The debate over mickey-mousing and underscoring is only the surface of an endless array of ideas and exploration associated with the music-image relationship. Nevertheless, it raises many concerns about film music, the greatest of which is the greater need for analysis of not just film scores themselves, but how they exist in unison to cinematic images. My efforts to hit on every aspect of the music-image relationship of the the desert truck chase are futile, but hopefully I've provided a sense of the music's position as part of the image, despite not actually taking up space. This sequence is an example in which the underscore may be masquarading as mickey-mousing, or vice versa, since the music rhythmically mirrors the action but in a sustained context of building moods and atmosphere for the scene. It essentially is both. It hits physical and emotional highs and lows, sustains and atmosphere throughout, and maintains a narrative consistency and intensity that continually builds upon itself. It's a magnificent sequence (with masterful editing, I might add).

Obviously, an action sequence such as this lends itself to an overt visual and musical approach so as to make an analysis like this easier. Many of Spielberg's films are musical in nature in that he designs his compositions around how they will look and sound. In truth, most sequences or cinematic moments (if you will) can examined in this fashion. Usually, there is some kind of tempo or rhymthmic feeling to a scene (with or without music) that, in its being a certain way, may enact the spectator to understanding it in a specific manner, or perhaps an ambiguous one. There are cues both visual and auditory that a viewer must interpret in order to make sense of temporal and spatial relationships that the visibile and musical properties of an image work to create. When they come together -- and often times they do -- it can result it incredibly rich filmmaking. Trying to put these image-music linkages into words is extremely difficult, especially since they can form such abstract moments of feeling that no shot-by-shot or note-by-note analysis can account for. In the case of a chase sequence, that abstraction is usually in the form of high-speed intensity rather than subtle emotion. Nonetheless, a perfectly compsed and scored chase sequence such as this (as well as others like the Indian sequence in John Ford's Stagecoach or the asteroid sequence Irvin Kerschner's The Empire Strikes Back). But just about any other kind of shot or sequence can create a mood and feeling within that moment in which so many feelings from identification with characters, the atmospheres of the film's world, the viewer's own experiences and memories, and other emotions associated with the viewer's own memories of previous moments in the film all come together in a moment of sublimity that can be subtle, overt, or both.

So what exactly does the score do, then> It's hard to quantify something that is by nature intangible. But attempts to do so in broad terms may be helpful. In his chapter in the book, Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion, Jeff Smith emphasizes three links between music and emotion as manifest in film music: the signification of characters' emotions (i.e., identification), the communication of an overall mood, and the arousal of emotional responses in audiences. All of film scores essentially break down to these three points. Smith observes:

"The three [music-image linkages] I have emphasized comprise a structure of film-musical affect that corresponds with different levels of emotional engagement... Such processesmay seem relatively routine, but they are nonetheless intergral to a number of larger aspects of narrative comprehension, such as the discernment of character motivation, the anticipation of future narrative developments, and the encoding of important narrative information in the spectators' memories."

Interestingly, these three linkages don't always divide so easily from each other. In fact, they are rarely ever so easy to split from one another. Moreover, one could argue these are the central concerns of visible elements of moving narratve images as well. Are they so different, and is it possible that a film can be exhibiting all three of these image-music properties in any given moment? If so, then one could speculate that the score is designed to both perform the same function of the moving image while also becoming part of that very image in the process. These are dizzying concepts to think about, and I couldn't begin to answer the questions that image-music relations open. But there still remains much to be explored when it comes to that relationship between the two. Its affect may be easily felt, but to understand that feeling and the nature of that affect may enhance how it is processed and experienced.

The unifying principle of visual and musical cognition and interpretation is affect. Therefore, the defining quality of cinema is its emotional expressiveness. Narrative is the topical path upon which the spectator treads, but the visual and auditory means by which that narrative takes form spawn intricate relations which make cinema a medium of emotional abstraction and exploration. A spectator doesn't just see an image or just hear an image. The spectator feels an image. Therefore, movies cannot and should not be reduced to a simple form of response and interpretation. Its basis in narrative and fiction is deceiving, but its real creative potential and aesthetic capabilities are right there in the moving images, which (in the case of a good film, obviously) flow together fluidly to create movement-based reality of memory and emotion that is binded by abstraction. The image is the music, and the music is the image. With cinema, the two are brought together in unique, challenging, and provocative ways.

Stanley Kubrick says it best in his famous, perfect quote about cinema: "A film is -- or should be -- more like music than fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what's behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later."


2 comments:

Damian said...

Marvelous, Ted. Once again you've given me a lot to think about.

I've long been of the opinion said that the score for Raiders is one of John Williams' best. Certainly the truck chase is a standout cue (for the reasons you mention and more) but there are so many others. I always found the scene where Indy uses the staff of Ra to determine where the ark is buried to be one of the most inheretly cinematic scenes in that or any film. There is virtually no dialogue at all (and what little dialogue there is is in German). Just images and music. It's fantastic.

I also love that Williams is not above having a bit of fun with the music. The moment where Indy, having just discovered Marion is in fact alive, starts to free her, changes his mind and then ties her back up again is a very funny scene but it's made even funnier by Williams' ironic use of the love theme in it's final few seconds (as Indy leaves and Marion screams after him) makes it positively hysterical.

Another tremendous talent of Williams (and Spielberg himself has said this) is knowing when NOT to use music. I remember the second time I saw Jurassic Park noticing that the T-Rex attack scene in the rain was left unscored (I didn't notice the first time because I was too busy peeing my pants). I recently noticed the same thing in Raiders with the shoot-out in Marion's bar in Nepal. The moments leading up to it are scored but as soon as Indy fires that first shot, the music stops and doesn't come back until after it's all over. What's amazing is that both sequences are hihgly effective without music (arguably more effective than they would've been with it).

It's interesting because I just watched the film again for my Spielberg project and like Jaws I'm finding myself with many of the same problems that confronted me in writing about Jaws. There's so much to say... how I can possibly get it all in? Your post has allowed me to say a little bit of it at least. Thanks!


P.S. This is a site that I often visit for random screenshots, but if you're looking for Indy screenshots, it's all right here.

Ted Pigeon said...

Thanks for the comments, Damian. I have updated my description of the chase sequence with the appropriate screenshots. Thanks for pointing them out. Also, I added a little bit to that description and expanded my post-analysis discussion as well. I just want to point it out because I came across some new thoughts and concepts that bring together what I was after in this post more effectively.

About Williams not using music, I completely agree. I was going to mention that in my post on him, but I don't think I will have the time do put one together. I think I will write one over time that I will post in a few months. But it's funny that you mention the bar scene and the T-rex scene because I have always singled out those two action sequences in Spielberg's oveure as so effective because of their absence of music. I linked them because they each represent the first major action scenes in the respective movies (not including the respective prologue scenes).

It's amazing the kind of atmosphere in both of them without must. In Jurassic Park, the sound of the pounding rain on the car windows and concrete outside lend a lot to the feeling of the whole scene. There is something more brutally real about the T-Rex with no music playing and just the sound of that rain. The lighting and wind blowing the tree branches, wires, and poles (in my mind) brings everything about the movie together. Amazingly, you can hear the rain pitter patter off of everything from the jungle foliage to the hard concrete cutting through it, to the windows of the vehicles.

In Raiders, Williams works his music around the sound effects to form brilliant moments of mood and atmosphere, such as when Marion first unveils the headstone. The wind effects with Williams' simple, but amazingly evocative Ark theme are brilliant. When the action starts, you can almost feel the creaking wood of the place as it withstands the freezing winds of the night. Something about the juxtaposition of extreme heat (the fire spreading during the fight) and extreme cold (the swirling snow outside) works amazingly without music.

And I agree with you... there is so much to say. I start writing these things and I realize that with each completed though I raise about 20 more that I'd like to think about. That's the beauty of this kind of criticism. It constantly provokes new feelings and perspectives. And the beauty of writing about film, is that the writing helps reveal more of the endless mysteries and treasures of great movies.