Friday, February 1, 2019

Administrative; third edition

The first post to the Hearing the Movies blog was ten years ago, in February 2009. The first edition of the textbook became available a month later, in March 2009. The second edition was published in 2015. And we have now started preliminary work on the third edition, which is expected to appear sometime in 2020. The third edition will not be a major revision, as the second was, when we changed the presentation to a largely chronological one. Instead, we will focus on streamlining the presentation in a few places and on adding more material about international (that is, non-Hollywood) repertoires and production practices, television, music video, and video games.

I created a guide to the blog in 2016 and covered the ~260 posts up to that time: see the link in the sidebar under "Contributors." Since then, an additional thirty posts have mainly offered suggestions for classroom use based on both published and online sources, the latter including the blogs The Avid Listener, Musicology Now, and OUP Blog.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

When is music not all that important?

Just yesterday I watched Richard Linklater's Boyhood (production 2001-13; released 2014). The film, which has won many awards, is remarkable in that it follows the same set of actors as characters through a twelve-year period, focusing the narrative on two children, their mother, and her husbands. At 2 hours and 45 minutes, it is long but by no means excessively so by today's standards, though to some viewers (like this one) it may feel even longer because—except for abusive outbursts by the second and third husbands—it is low-key dramatically and emotionally throughout.  But those viewers (like this one) will certainly also acknowledge that the film's point is a true-to-life coming-of-age story and that "low-key" is not only appropriate but desirable.

Also appropriately, given the genre, film editing and sound editing are both traditional and non-intrusive. That brings me to the topic of this post. Diegetic music is heard several times in different environments—family singing, a band, etc.—but the music is so wholly embedded in and so thoroughly motivated by the narrative, that by film's end it remains in the memory at about the same level as image backgrounds of suburban houses in Houston, Austin, and San Marcos, Texas, the film's three locales. At least that was the case for viewers like this one. . . . I suspect the fact that no particular music acts as a sound motif contributed to this assessment.

In the early Hollywood sound film, especially dramas and action films, a similar effect could be created, inadvertently, by the nondiegetic orchestral scores that routinely played through at least 50% of the film's run-time—and often more than that. Through its sheer abundance—in some studios abetted by low volume levels—such "wall-to-wall" music could often be tuned out, one basis of Claudia Gorbman's term "unheard melodies." That was the case even for viewers like this one, whose primary research interests were in early Hollywood sound film.

There is of course no conceivable objective measurement for attention to music in the soundtrack. In Hearing the Movies, our central goal is to add skills of critical listening to skills of critical viewing, but we also admit the unwanted potential to distort one's viewing practice. That is to say, in recollection and interpretation of a feature film, it is always good to stand back and consider music in the context of the film's overall narrative, design, and effects.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

A Man Escaped (Bresson, 1956)

While teaching our film music and sound course, I often introduced scenes from Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot's Holiday (1953) and My Uncle (1958) as a novel way of reinforcing the idea that sound can be a varying, vital, sometimes unavoidable element of a filmmaker's creative method. Monsieur Hulot's indecipherable dialogue and many outrageous sound gags are hilarious.

Robert Bresson's contemporaneous A Man Escaped (1956) is of a different order altogether: a French Resistance fighter in Lyon jailed by the Nazis recounts his methodically worked-out scheme to escape. David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson write that the soundtrack is "a central factor in shaping our experience of the whole film. .  . through Bresson’s control of what sounds we hear, what qualities these sounds have, and what relationships exist among those sounds and between sound and image."
Throughout the film, sound has many important functions. As in all of his films, Bresson emphasizes the sound track, rightly believing that sound may be just as cinematic as images. At certain points in A Man Escaped, Bresson even lets his sound technique dominate the image; throughout the film, we are compelled to listen. Indeed, Bresson is one of a handful of directors who create a complete interplay between sound and image.
Bordwell has generously posted a PDF of the case study essay from which I have just quoted. The essay was deleted from an earlier edition of Bordwell and Thompson's Film Art: An Introduction and has been posted for free download here: link. Go the lower part of the page, under the heading "Film analyses from earlier editions of Film Art."

A Man Escaped is included in the excellent Criterion Collection series of DVD editions, and the entire essay posted by Bordwell (excepting only the scene example at the end) is included on the Special Features disk. An actor reads the text in voice-over while stills or clips are offered in the imagetrack. The PDF essay also includes a set of questions at the end; these could serve as the starting point for class discussion, assignment, or even paper topic.

The essay's headings are:
Fontaine’s Commentary
Sound Effects and Narration
Sound Motifs
Music
A Sample Sequence
Summary [and Questions]
About the music, they write that "another auditory motif involves the only nondiegetic sound in the film—passages from a Mozart mass." The work is the C Minor Mass, K. 427. Both Kyrie and Agnus Dei (which Mozart did not write) are said to be used -- I recognized only the Kyrie. Apart from the expected positions at beginning and end, brief excerpts (usually about 10 seconds or less) are heard at or near these timings: 20:28, 28:30, 40:00, 48:40, 51:40, 61:05, 69:00, and 100:00.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Nathan Platte on Gone with the Wind (and others)

A very interesting play off the famous "Tara" theme in Gone with the Wind could form the basis of a comparison paper. Nathan Platte reveals that the composer, Max Steiner, had actually written jazz/blues versions of the tune for two films just a year or so earlier: link. The films are They Made Me a Criminal (1939)—starring John Garfield, Claude Rains, and Ann Sheridan—and Crime School (1938), which stars Humphrey Bogart and Gale Page. As the titles suggest, both belong to the distinctly Warner Bros. genre of inner city crime and gangster films.

Quite a distance from southern plantations! Platte's explanations and speculation about the transformation from crime film to antebellum romance are stimulating in themselves, and one or more of them might well be explored further in a paper that forms and argues a thesis.

Nathan Platte is the author of Making Music in Selznick's Hollywood (Oxford University Press, 2017): link to publisher page.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Christopher Doll on The Inception

SMT-V is the Videocast Journal of the Society for Music Theory; it has been publishing since 2015 using the Vimeo platform. The most recent title is Christopher Doll's “Was it Diegetic, or Just a Dream? Music’s Paradoxical Place in the Film Inception”: link.

Here is the abstract:
Between "diegetic" film music (heard by the characters) and "nondiegetic" film music (heard only by the audience) is a paradoxical space called the "fantastical gap." A film such as Inception (2010) makes traversal of this gap into an overt theme, obscuring our sense of place to such a degree that even the literal plot of the movie is open to interpretation, and thus also illustrating the extent to which filmmakers can manipulate an audience's understanding of the filmic world through the blurring of the diegetic/nondiegetic divide.
The video opens with succinct example clips for the categories of diegetic, nondiegetic, and "fantastical gap," then traces the connection between the latter, musical themes, and narrative. Although posted to a professional music theory site, “Was it Diegetic, or Just a Dream?" is very accessible and would be an excellent accessory to the opening pages of Chapter 3.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

La La Land and Top Hat -- comparison

Students looking for a topic for a comparison paper might do well to start with Steven Cohan's post on the Oxford University Press blog: link. Cohan mentions references  in La La Land (2016) to several classical Hollywood musicals, but makes a number of comments comparing it specifically with the Astaire-Rogers musical Top Hat (1935). 

Cohan's list of numbers and their generic status as "challenge dance," "show number," etc., could easily be applied to other musicals.

His statement about the status of song and dance numbers certainly chimes with our generalizations about the musical in Hearing the Movies. Cohan asserts that "the numbers direct the progress of the narrative, with the boy-meets-girl plot pushed forward by the musical elements, which is also to say that the numbers are where the substance of the film resides, not the plot. The numbers are its flagship sequences."

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Hollywood Musicals Quiz

A Hollywood musicals quiz is available on the Oxford University Press blog: link.
The quiz is based on a chapter in a book by Todd Berliner. The chapter "traces the history of the convention that characters in Hollywood musicals burst into song without realistic motivation."

This idea is related to—but is distinct from—the audio dissolve that we discuss in Hearing the Movies, chapter 3. Although we do say that the audio dissolve "serves as a transition to song and dance," we use the term as Rick Altman defines it, for the transition from diegetic song and accompaniment to song with a non-diegetic accompaniment. In such cases, the initial status is clearly diegetic ("The character seems to know very well that he or she is singing"). In fact, "one very common device in classical Hollywood musicals is to show one or more characters gathered around a piano." Once this is established, and "as the song progresses, nondiegetic orchestral accompaniment enters, replacing the piano."

Berliner is concerned, then, with what happens before the singing starts and with the transition into it. This notion that musicals permit "bursting into song without realistic motivation" is consistent with our generalization that film "musicals do not maintain the clear separation of diegetic and nondiegetic registers and so cannot rigorously enforce the boundaries of the diegetic world, which seems to constantly dissolve under the force of song." (Quotes are from Hearing the Movies, second edition, p. 69).