Wednesday, March 19, 2008
On the cinema of music
"One thing you don't want is for the music to become self-conscious, for the music to draw attention to itself. It really needs to be in the film, not sitting on top of the film."
"It really takes the right notes, the right gesture, the right amount of activity at the right time..."
- James Newton Howard
Musicians and filmmakers who intuitively grasp their art form have a way of tapping into the mysteries of perception, movement, and memory, and how they relate to each other. There are striking remblances between music and cinema. One can even say that cinema is a kind of musical expression, or that music has a cinematic-like motion.
These were thoughts I had while watching Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton, a movie about law, corporate corruption, and social responsibility. Involving from start to finish, the film has a consistent line of quality regarding formal details, such as writing, acting, lighting, etc. I was surprised with the amount of very distinct moments in Michael Clayton that were like little cinematic universes to themselves. By that I mean the kind of moments that breach that elusive momentary sublimity that the best cinema constructs. These moments creep in, out, and around the movie, despite never really defining it. Sometimes it's a simple composition of a darkly lit street or office building corridor, or a well-acted and crisply-written exchange between two actors. Other times it is an intangible abstraction within seemingly simple movements. These moments often occur when the movement of sound and image interact together.
One of these moment occurs at end of the film, as Clayton (George Clooney) walks away from Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) as authorities swarm the premises. He walks directly toward the camera in a simple, evocative shot of hotel lobby area. As Clayton walks from the lobby to the escalator, the musical score enters into the image with just the right sound, speed, and rhythms to imbue the images with nobility and finality. A subtle piano chord accompanies these long shots of Clooney exiting the hotel and getting into a cab. It's a simple theme, consisting of only a few notes, but it compliments the images and the catharsis of the movie's climax to an extent that they breathe outside the typical Cathartic Climax you so commonly see at the end of a film. Until that point in the movie, the score is hardly noticeable. It features eletronics and ambient sounds, and builds subtle motifs for various moments and characters. But at the end, despite it still remaining quiet, it enables the climax a kind of fresh catharsis, one that hits the right note without overstating it. The sustained string chords and the extended shot of Clooney's face in the back of the taxi cab make for one of the more memorable film endings of 2007. Both the image and the music to "fit" each other. Neither would be right without the other.
The music was written by James Newton Howard, one of the more prominent composer of American film scores today. Howard seems to grasp not just musical theory and composition, with a strong knowledge of classical tradition of both the western orchestra and film scores as well as a keen ear for contemporary arrangements and electronic ambiance. Yet unlike many prominent film composers who write for Hollywood studio films, Howard understands the role of music in cinema. Music itself is a kind of cinema. In a recent video interview, Howard discussed the frequencies of music, noting that certain notes have particular textural and sensual properties. Many musicians have noted this in the past, but Howard's explanation of this notion of particularly interesting. He says:
"I've always felt that all music comes from the same source. I visualize a gigantic shpere --maybe it's a universe itself-- and from that sphere is basically everything that already exists. Because let's face it: everything in music already exists. It's just a matter of unravelling certain things and uncovering certain numbers of layers and finding things that were there. We're not inventing any frequencies. The frequencies exist in physics. They have always existed; they're there. The patterns of frequencies, the relationship of frequencies to each other, the timbres involved -- they're all pieces of some wonderful puzzle that a composer takes and puts together in whatever way [she or he] is able to to form a musical idea. But the salient idea for me is that its already there; it's there floating all around us. it's just a question of getting out of one's own way and letting it kind of come to you. That's really all I do. I spend most of my time trying to get out of my own way."
James Newton Howard would make a very good film critic. His understanding of music stretches beyond music, and seems to have more to do with the plane of sensory perception, i.e. experience. When we evaluate movies or pieces of music as cohesive wholes, all we have to go on is our memory if the chain of moments. These moments don't have specific starting or end points, but are instead multi-varied, ambiguous, and constantly bouncing off of each other. Our experience of perceptual stimulii of any kind seems to come down to how we arrange those moments, how we pluck them from the plane of experience and structure them to make sense, to mean. They cannot be reduced to mere linearities, boxed into symptoms or descriptions, but instead function assemblages of sound, memory, and emotion. The specific sensation of one single note or image is difficult to isolate from the rest of the experience and examined; it is changing along with the image and/or music.
In art, or narrative in general, we arranged images and sounds in recognizable patterns according to visual or musical vocabulary so that the viewer/listener may perceive them and situate them according to the pre-established clusters of visual and musical information. But the essence of cinema, and music as well, is in the experience of those sensations. It's not about understanding or interpreting, but seeing, hearing, feeling. The most effective cinematic and musical compositions are about moments that we experience in unison with various other moments, which we then reconstruct in our memories to form a greater sense of a shot, a scene, or a film, or a note, a bridge, and melody. The only difference is that we see images and hear music. But do we not also hear images and see music?
Although we have been socialized to experience and understand perceptual stimuli in a heavy categorical manner—i.e. sight, touch, taste, etc.—one could argue that sensual perception is a far more fluid process, and that we only condition ourselves to separate and distinguish between them. Artistic expressions like cinema or music employ all of the senses to construct and consume. Some would argue they even incorporate different ones. To "see" a film is to hear it, to touch it, to smell it, to taste it.
This idea is the greater basis for a more Deleuzian definition of cinematic movement, in which the movement-image is not exlusively a visual phenomenon, but also an auditory one, a musical one. Images—even those without sounds—are rhythmic, auditory, even musical. By the same token, cinematic sound deeply embodies the aesthetics of fluid motion and movements in an image. Movement and sound are entwined together. And that's the beauty of each. Cinema and music are the same expression insofar that they each dive into the senses and innate processes of sensation, thought, and lived experience.
We can analyze cinema from a particular theoretical perspective, e.g. Lacanian psycoanalysis or Bordwellian cognitivism, but as useful as it is learn about a film's thematic meaning or systematic relations, perhaps cinema creates a new kind of sensual experience that goes beyond the universalization of experience, which many of said bodies of concepts purport. Maybe it's difficult to recognize how perfect cinema really is because we've broken it down via theoretical or empirical means. But the Deleuzian cinema is right there in front of us. Maybe we just need to know how to see it.
What are some other movies or movie moments that capture this fleeting wonderment of sound and motion?