Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Sounds of the Knight

Of all the Hollywood blockbusters released in recent years --from superhero flicks to fantasy epics-- none stand out to me as more memorable and significant than Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. Although there are other worthwhile, even great studio films in the last decade, Batman Begins is distinct in that it weaves intelligence, craftmanship, and character together with a narrative that is relevant.

At the heart of the film lies a central tension regarding the hero myth, which the film neither embraces nor shuns. The movie poses the question: Can one person rise above sweeping corruption, and make a difference in the lives of those preyed upon most by those with power? Moral fiber is the one attribute that has always separated heroes from villains, and yet the film seriously questions whether a moral center is enough to counter the fear and complacency that mass corruption breeds. Moreover, the film outright questions whether morality and goodness are productive in this struggle at all.

Complementing and enlivening these thematic depths is a dense aesthetic that is noirish in mood, but naturalistic in structure. Gotham city lacks an architectural identity. It is instead defined by labyrinthine streets and contemporary glass skyscrapers rising above the poverty beneath them. Their twinkling lights glimmer in the background of many compositions, obscured by the shear multitude of their numbers.

Part of what enables these images to breathe life to the narrative is the music by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. Interestingly, traditional film score fans single out this score as one of the worst in recent years, which is likely due to the fact that it --like the film-- is incongruous with the expectations of a "superhero" film. The score rarely waltzes into the familiar ground of brass-driven heroic ostinatos (such as in Danny Elfman's outstanding theme for Tim Burton's Batman films), as the composers instead opted to auditorily augment the noir-ish visual style and subtle characterization with rhythmic, driving music for a man who seeks to embody a more primitive state of mind than most other heroes. When the camera pans the rooftops of Gotham, we can hear these rhythms building, pulsing, but not necessarily with much direction. Contrasting with these rhythms are frequent swirlings of strings and faint electronic echoes giving voice to a city (and a film) with no clear villain, but a plurality of pain, fear, and corruption underneath the slick, glossy surface.

Although The Dark Knight is still almost two months away, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard have recently given an interview to the LA Times. On The Dark Knight and Nolan's "intellectual" style, they shared their views about the place for music in this film and the 2005 film that preceded it. Excerpts below:

"Why go with a fast-and-simple string pattern rather than give the film a big, easily recognizable theme?

Zimmer: I wanted to take the romance out of it -- the fake fantasy to it. One of the things I kept thinking about was just how iconic the bat symbol is, and at the same time how dark and unadorned it is. I spent forever getting rid of notes to get it down to just two notes in this ostinato pattern.... The bat symbol is so efficient at getting the idea across. I wanted to get really efficient.

Howard: At the same time, when you write a traditional, conventional superhero theme, it gives you so much information that it might be misleading about that character. Our Batman? We're still getting to know him. He's a very complicated guy. To attach a theme to him, a theme you can sort of hum, it defines him emotionally in a way that is false.... It advertises so much about who you are during the film. I think, in a way, a theme like that would have done that. This theme is about implication, and it's about menace.

And there is still a recognizable sound attached to the character.

Zimmer: But I'm letting the character finish the thought. It leaves a lot more space. I don't see Batman as a superhero. I wanted to be very clear about that. I wanted to take out anything that is super about this.

Let’s talk about the "Joker Suite." This almost sounded like an orchestral interpretation of an industrial song.

Zimmer: Look, I'm German, so I come from the German tradition of Kraftwerk.... But I kept thinking I wanted to find a way to bring corrosion into Gotham -- corrosion and recklessness. The funny thing about that piece is that I knew what I wanted to do, but it took me months to actually do it. Nobody could play it.

It's all about acting and attitude, in a way. It's very much of the idea of taking one note and expressing any part of fearlessness and recklessness and surprise.... It is very industrial music. I tried to give it a punk attitude. I used to work with the Damned and bands like that.

Howard: What's great about the Joker theme to me is that it feels totally untethered. It just kind of exists. It lives somewhere in the cracks.

What else is different this time around?

Zimmer: This is what surprised me, and I think this needs a little clarifying. Everyone keeps saying that this film is darker than the last one. I always think that people think that means more violence. It's not that at all. There's much more of a precise intellectual thought that went into Christopher [Nolan] and his brother [Jonathan] while writing. The ideas are somehow more real and more grown-up. We're doing a summer blockbuster that deals with anarchy and old-fashioned values versus the modern man. That's a lot of fun to play with.

You guys split up characters a bit. James, can you talk about what you created for Harvey Dent/Two Face?

Howard: Basically, Harvey Dent is Gotham's great hope. He's going to turn things around. He starts out with the best of intentions. He's a brave, courageous, high-minded man. Over the course of this story, he becomes seduced and corrupted -- really by the Joker. The Joker kind of wins. It's just the arc of his character, which ultimately ends up in a very tragic self-destructive place. That was the musical line.

Zimmer: What makes it interesting is that there are such extremes. The music James wrote for Harvey Dent is really beautiful. On the hand, you have the Joker theme, and on the other hand you have that contrast of something really elegant and beautiful.

What makes this movie -– and this score -– interesting is the extremes. The black is a lot blacker because of the light."

It's first worth noting that Hans Zimmer is nowhere close to the talent level of James Newton Howard when it comes to film score, at least in my view. That said, his perspectives on how he approaches a film or character are always interesting and upfront. He also takes over the interview, as Howard's comments are usually pushed to the side.

At any rate, it's a very interesting interview that's worth the read if you're an admirer of Batman Begins, both the film and the score. There are definitely some hints dropped about the movie, but what's really intriguing is how they explain their approach to the musical texture of the first film, and how that carries over to Knight.

Howard's comments are more appealing on an intellectual level (as I noted in March), especially his reflection on how brashly heroic or dark themes for characters can constrict their ability to develop and morph. He describes the theme they've written for Batman to be more about "implication," which is certainly reflected in the score, I would say. It will be especially interesting how that theme is developed in Knight, and whether Batman will become more of a hero in that film. Something tells me that the film is headed in a new direction, as Zimmer notes in the later passage about the new film being more outwardly cerebral than the last movie.

Although my sensibilities are more aligned with Howard's more quiet, intangible sense of marrying music and images, Zimmer wins the award for the most provocative remark about "letting the character finish the thought," and the music "leaving more space," in being more about implication.

I would be interested to hear how others feel on these matters. So, your thoughts regarding your likes or dislikes in the score to Batman Begins, or the overall approach that Howard and Zimmer advocate about the role of music in the construction of character?


Ed Howard said...

Wow, some very interesting stuff there. Batman Begins wasn't perfect, but it's probably still the best superhero movie. And as I commented in my Iron Man review, it seems to have become something of a new blueprint for superhero movies, with its focus on the development of character and motivation (the origin story) as opposed to just non-stop action. It helps that the arc of the films seems to be heading towards a deeper examination of the issues raised by Frank Miller and Alan Moore's Batman stories, namely the extent to which Batman and his nemeses are aspects of the same thing. That moral inquiry should become especially obvious with the introduction of the Joker, and I frankly cannot wait.

I love the fact that the composers are also thinking about these things. Too often action movies (and Hollywood blockbusters in general) telegraph the story's emotional content with bombastic scores. In fact, Zimmer is a major culprit in that respect most of the time. But the Batman score is something else altogether, energetic and emotional without narrowing the audience's interpretative leeway.

Ted Pigeon said...

Funny you should mention that about Zimmer. He is indeed the greatest culprit of the mindless, bombastic scores that have drowned the current crop of film music. That said, I have always detected a strong artistic sensibility in his smaller works. And I love his willingness to try something different. But we cannot forget that he is largely responsible for what film music has become.

From what I've heard, he was more responsible for the action music in Batman Begins, which isn't surprising to me, since the action music is the least involving aspects of the score. I suppose those cues are necessary, if only to accompany some of the noisier bits in the movie.

But I agree that it's nice to see composers reflecting on the relationship of music and character. There's something about that remark concerning "space" that really struck me. It's as if musical space is in some way linked to compositional space.