Thursday, June 21, 2007

Revisioning the film score

I would guess that the word "image" shows up on this blog several hundred times, with probably several appearances in each of my posts. As my readers may be aware, I am a member of the critical camp who advocates complete focus on the images of movies and their interrelated elements and movements. These moving parts are constructed in such a way to create a relationship between image and spectator to therefore enact the spectator to interpret a narrative. Caught somewhere between Bordwell and Deleuze, I think that the interpretation moving images -- contextually based in narrative and visual convention -- is a deeply intricate act grounded in cognitive, physical, and social processes of thought, perception and response.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record (although I fear I may already do this), I will attempt to steer away from my usual "form is content" ramblings in the majority of what is to follow. Nevertheless, I find it appropriate in this instance to highlight my steadfast emphasis on matters of the image in understanding cinema. Why do I mention all of this? Because for almost six months of writing for this blog, I have sparingly mentioned a crucial component of cinema in my construction of image-related arguments.

Many formalist and neoformalist film scholars perform shot-by-shot analyses of films, breaking them down to their elements by freezing a moving image to a still image to enable greater analysis of how a given image functions as a moving image. As useful as this method may be towards analyzing every element of a film's composition, it ultimately doesn't account for all of the film's elements. One can get a sense of the lighting, mise-en-scene, angles, editing (when looking at several shots back-to-back). But such an analysis does not account for sound. Some proponents for the importance of sound/music in cinema would claim that this fact contributes to a bias against sound/music in film criticism. Whether that's true is hard to say. But it definitely warrants consideration.

Another popular claim on the part of film music buffs is that the film experience is half audio and half visual. Though I am completely in support of the spirit of giving sound and music it's fair due in assessing cinema, I'm not sure I would so easily buy the idea that cinema represents a 50/50 split of audio and visual. I may be acting nitpicky here, but the problem I have with this attitude is that it supposes that the two elements that make up a whole, while obviously working together, function independently of one another in doing so -- undoubtedly affecting each other in how they stand exist next to one another. This is far too simple to account for a relationships that, in my mind, is incredibly complex. While some amount of simplifying is probably necessary to understand basic concepts in any field, I think we tend to latch on to them at the onset of learning and therefore all future learning is based on these simple notions and overarching critical perspectives tend to grow into more intricate versions of the same basic model.

If I were to make a broad claim about sound in cinema, I would say that sound is a crucial part of movies, but that its importance varies depending on the particular movie and how the details of its images function together. Spoken dialogue obviously counts as sound, as would diegetic and non-diegetic music, as well as sound effects. In general, the image is the most fundamental aspect of cinema, and I would argue that all other elements serve the moving image and assist in giving it movement and life. That being said, sound, more specifically, music has always played a great role in the classical tradition and has since maintained its own importance in visual storytelling. Was it necessary? Probably not. But filmmakers nevertheless felt some kind of urge to "score" their images.

This may be due to the fact that much of the early cinema that featured extensive music was movement-based. Filmmakers were experimenting with movement so as to separate the art of cinema from theatre. Maybe it wasn't such a self-conscious step away from the actor-based, stage constricted nature of theater but a curioisity and experimentation of what moving images could accomplish. Before Eisenstein, music was prominent in cinema, but not nearly so as it was after his theories of montage revolutionzed how cinema was thought of and made. Editing a sequence together based on images connected in a comprehensible manner so that the viewer could make sense of the different perspectives on the movement from multiple angles and views altered how viewers conceptualized of moving images. Debates continue over the cognitive and affective nature of editing techniques and how they relate to the viewer's sensemaking abilities in constructing a knowledge of a sequence based on various moving images spliced together. But there is little doubt that the presence of music in cinema increased dramatically with the montage.

The question then becomes, does the music compliment the image and provide it with rythym, or does it conribute to an already existing "feel," from how the images are cut together and how their movements exist? This is an extremely hard question to answer, if only because we are all so familiar with movie images containing music that it would be nearly impossible to think of them without musical accompaniment. Again, I should ammend this statement by noting that not all cinematic images call for accompaniment of music. Some great films don't contain any music at all - score or song - and some have very little sound at all. So it is certainly possible to have a movie without music, but it's essentially a musical decision to not have sound or music in a film. Nevertheless, the question remains as to the specific role of music in a film. Naturally, depending on the type of film, the importance of music will vary. But perhaps this is too broad.

Something about imbuing movement with sound or music allows the image to exist differently. Music does provide a rhythm, a tempo, to the image simply by existing and "matching up" the image. It instead creates rhythms, tempos, moods and atmospheres that exist in the image as result of the fusion of sight and sound. Music, therefore, isn't so much a complimentary device to an image that provides more of something already contained in an image; it is rather an organic part of the image itself (assuming there is music at all).

Regarding analysis, I find the most effective method of assessing the relationship of sound/music and image isn't to look at film types or genres, but instead to hone in on individual sequences or "moments," and then attempt to understand how those sequences build upon one another to form a greater sense of narrative. Cinema is about pure feeling. Every aspect of any type of analysis -- be it formalist, psychanalytic, or otherwise -- is geared towards understanding how those images on a screen affect the viewer or culture in the way they do. These approaches naturally take very different directiions in understanding an experience that is in simple terms intangible. Coming from a cognitivist/affect/Deleuzian perspective, which in my mind is the most essential entry point to cinema studies, it's important that all aspects of that image are examined, even ones that aren't necessarily part of the visible image.

An image with any kind of music cannot and would not exist in the unique manner that it does were it not for the music. Once a composer and director select a certain musical approach and record music for that specific image, neither the image nor the music can really exist independently of their marriage together. Sure, a shot-by-shot analysis of a movie is helpful towards understanding compositional details, just like listening to a film score apart from the movie is enjoyable and can conjure memories of the movie or other feelings. But neither of these are complete experiences with movies or the music. That is because images and music inhabit one another, live off of one another, and create the nostalgia and nuances of cinematic images.


Damian Arlyn said...

Excellent post, Ted. Incidentally, despite being a huge filmmusic buff, I actually agree with you that the image (specifically the "moving" image)is main element of cinema. I happen to subscribe to the notion that movies are primarily a visual medium and that the "sound" of a movie (what we hear), while still important, is perhaps not as important as the "look" of a movie (what we see). Spielberg once said that sound is really the "glove that fits over the image." That makes sense to me.

However, you do point out something interesting. In the days of silent cinema, filmmakers felt (for whatever reason) the need to "score" their images. Thus, movies had music before they even had "sound." I think this is significant. The importance of music (or even its absence) in any given film cannot be underestimated I don't think and that's one of the reasons why I wanted to host this blog-a-thon.

One more thing I want to mention, that may or may not prove relevant to this discussion, is that at one point I realized something singular about filmmusic: as far as I can tell, it is the only element of a finished film that can be completely removed from the context of the film itself and still be a complete and whole "entity." It seems to me that no other aspect of moviemaking (the script, the cinematography, the editing, the performances) has this capability. Many of the great film scores throughout history have not only enhanced their movies but worked as satisfying listening experiences oon their own (Williams' scores being a perfect example). That a film score can function as a "stand-alone" work of art is a unique characteristic and should not be ignored, I think, in its analysis and apprecation.

Ted Pigeon said...

Most definitely. But then we're faced with the problem of how we assess those scores, which is what I intend to address another post this weekend. What is the composer's job with the music/soundtrack? Does the knowledge of a soundtrack fomr someone like Williams alter how he envisions the music itself. After all, he is the kind of the "suite," the piece of music meant to stand alone from the movie. Moreover, how does this impact how actual film scores are perceived and assessed? Lots of questions with this. And I hope to delve into it further...

Damian Arlyn said...

Those are indeed good questions, ted, and I very much look forward to seeing what you can come up with to answer them. :)