Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Brief accounts of film music from MacDonald, Invisible Art

Lawrence MacDonald's The Invisible Art of Film Music is a Hollywood-centered historical narrative that puts the focus squarely on composers; the tale that emerges, therefore, is one of stylistic development in underscoring practices. Although by no means the only book to take this point of view, The Invisible Art is well written and thorough, and it could provide supplementary readings to offer students for whom this kind of narrative may be appealing.

The book also has many brief descriptions of music in a wide range of Hollywood films. These might offer ideas to an instructor looking for different content or starting points for student projects. Here is a sample (edited slightly for length):

One of MGM's top composers, Bronislau Kaper, won an Oscar for his charming score of Lili [1953], the fanciful tale of a young orphaned girl . . . who joins a carnival and becomes in­volved with two men: a bitter, physically impaired puppeteer . . . and a dashing magician. . . . Kaper composed a beguiling tune for the film, "Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo," which is sung as part of the puppet-theater act. This deceptively simple little waltz tune is later incorporated into an innovative dream sequence that takes the form of a ballet in which Lili's feelings for the two men are worked out in a complex psychological pantomime. The dream sequence provides a remarkable musical finale for this enchanting film. (p. 136)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

More on Sound in Film Art: An Introduction

Here are three sample comments on sound from Bordwell & Thompson's Film Art: An Introduction. These were taken from the 6th edition (2001) but also appear in the 7th (2003); the current edition is the 8th (2006).

(timbre) ". . . in the opening sequence of Rouben Mamoulian's Love Me Tonight, people starting the day on a street pass a musical rhythm from object to object--a broom, a carpet beater--and the humor of the number springs in part from the very different timbres of the objects." (in the section "Timbre")

(frequency; timbre) " In The Wizard of OZ the disparity between the public image of the Wizard and the old charlatan who rigs it up is marked by the booming bass of the effigy and the old man's higher, softer, more quavering voice." (in the section "Timbre")

(manipulation of diegetic/nondiegetic relation) "In American Graffiti, a film that plays heavily on the distinction between diegetic and nondiegetic music, offscreen sounds of car radios often suggest that all of the cars on a street are tuned to the same radio station." (in the section "Resources of Diegetic Sound")

Link to Film Art on Bordwell's website: David Bordwell. And to the publisher: Film Art, 8th edition (this link goes to a table of contents).

Monday, September 28, 2009

Sound and Music in Film Art: An Introduction

Although they tend to downplay their contribution to film sound research and pedagogy, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson's chapter on sound in their best-selling Film Art: An Introduction is excellent. As with all the chapters in the book, Chapter 9 is clearly organized, with a wealth of brief comments on individual films, plus a few longer analyses. Their approach to the topic is very compatible with HtM, and the chapter or its analytic essays could easily serve as additional reading in a course for which HtM is the principal textbook.

In the Supporting Materials section, I have added a Word file that gives a detailed table of contents for Chapter 9 in the 7th edition (the current edition is the 8th (2006)), along with a list of all the films mentioned in the chapter, keyed to topics.

Link to Film Art on Bordwell's website: David Bordwell. And to the publisher: Film Art, 8th edition (this link goes to a table of contents). quotes a few definitions of terms from the FIlm Art sound chapter: definitions. The sound chapter from the first edition of Film Art (1979) was reprinted (without images) under the section "Practice and Methodology" in the anthology Film Sound: Theory and Practice, ed. Elisabeth Weis and John Belton (1985). This venerable anthology is still in print (Columbia University Press).

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Quiz 7 alternatives

I have uploaded two alternates to Quiz 7 from the Quiz bank used during the summer 2009 class. These can be found on the Supporting Materials page, under the heading "Materials related directly to the book." Quiz 7 asks students to analyze a film scene and produce commentary about "interesting" points. After a semester in which they are regularly asked during class sessions to analyze film clips for their sound, such open-ended instructions are enough.

The two alternatives are more specific, asking students to describe details of the sound track and then answer a question about diegetic/nondiegetic or empathetic/neutral/anempathetic functions. For the first, a scene from Possession is the focus; for the second, one near the end of Catch Me If You Can.

In the past, I have also combined these two as a unit-end or semester-end exam.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

To Have and Have Not--additional comments

I have posted a music cue list for To Have and Have Not on the supporting materials page of the HtM website: Supporting Materials.

Two additional pedagogical comments about music:

1. Franz Waxman's music for the establishing sequence is built in a sharply defined two-part design, with a dramatic opening for main titles followed by a more melodically profiled and rhythmically robust "native music." The elements are similar to the main-title music for Casablanca, which in turn is a reworking by Max Steiner of his music that opens The Lost Patrol (1934). In its somewhat crude directness, the "native music" (that's what it's called in the studio cue sheet) is uncharacteristic of Waxman, and one has to wonder whether he was asked to write "something like Casablanca."

In Casablanca, a brief dramatic opening is followed immediately by "native" or "Arab" music, then by La Marseillaise. In The Lost Patrol, the opening is identical, but the end is a British military march. The three main title cues make for interesting comparison, and they provide an interesting instance of reuse as well as a case of style-topic duplication.

2. The second comment is about music as sound advance. The Hotel Martinique is the central and primary location of action in the film. Although even the basement is used at one point (to hide the injured resistance leader), the primary locations are the main floor restaurant-bar, a second-floor corridor and rooms, and the street outside the Hotel. Several times music from Cricket's band is heard before the scene changes to the restaurant-bar area, and the effect is very similar to sound advances that bridge more radical breaks in both time and place. The first example occurs after 00:11:00, with the entrance of "Martinique." (See earlier blog entries for more information about Hoagie Carmichael's music.)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Music in Two Recent Spike Lee Films

Both Inside Man (2006) and Miracle at St. Anna (2008) are mainstream films that can be watched by anyone, if one allows for idiosyncracies of Spike Lee's directorial voice in the same way one would for, say, Alfred Hitchcock, Jean-Luc Godard, or Sergio Leone. The underscore for both was composed by Terence Blanchard, who was trained as a jazz musician, played for earlier Spike Lee films, but has gradually morphed into a composer of orchestral underscoring.

The music for both of these films is surprisingly unadventurous, in both cases doing its job effectively and efficiently according to prevailing fashion in Hollywood but not attempting anything beyond that. (One can say the same of the treatment of sound in general.) The most striking moments are in the main titles and end credits of Inside Man.

In the former, a disconcerting moment occurs somewhat like the beginning of North by Northwest: the musical style (its style topic -- see HtM, ch. 8) seems out of sync with our expectations. It's obvious this will be a thriller or crime pic, but we hear a Bollywood-style pop tune. Nor is the connection made clear anywhere later on (there is a Sikh man, a minor character who is treated poorly by the police, but that's as close as we ever get to a motivation for the music). In the end credits, the same music has short segments of rap embedded in it, but the hip-hop elements barely ripple the surface of the tune's Bollywood optimism.

All this being said, an instructor might ask students to compare the musical style in Inside Man with a crime thriller from the 1990s, perhaps The Fugitive (1993) or Se7en (1995), though many others would be possible of course. Miracle at St. Anna can be compared with WWII films from that era (Back to Bataan (1945), for example) or from the decades that followed (perhaps The Longest Day (1962), a scene from which is shown near the beginning of Miracle at St. Anna).

Sound Match and Onscreen/Offscreen Symmetry in Amadeus

The soundscape of Amadeus (1984) is jarring in many respects -- and not just because of the bizarre hyena-like laugh that Tom Hulce's Mozart produces repeatedly throughout. The musical performances are almost always too loud for the physical settings and are too obviously in contemporary concert and stage performance styles. (The occasional period instrument or two cannot disguise the 1980s' modes of performance--and sound recording--in both concert and operatic scenes.)

Nevertheless, the film abounds in interesting details of the intermingling of sound, image, and music. I wrote about one of those yesterday ("nondiegetic-offscreen"). Here are two additional examples of the treatment of sound early in the film.

The long scene in which Mozart is introduced to the Emperor (and embarrasses Salieri for the first time) runs from about 00:26:00 to 00:36:34. At the end of this, making the cut at the end of the scene, director Milos Forman manages a simple but very effective match that juxtaposes Mozart in medium closeup, looking left and uttering his hyena-laugh, with Salieri, also in medium closeup, looking right, silent, and bitterly angry. A bit less than three minutes later, a female student is vocalizing as Salieri plays, then cut to the stage with the student singing the same figure as part of an aria in Mozart's opera Abduction from the Seraglio (with Mozart conducting). The sound match is as direct as could be and would make an excellent first example for the sound match as applied to music.

Almost immediately thereafter, a neatly symmetrical pairing illustrates onscreen/offscreen sound. The elderly Salieri talks (still to the priest) about how Mozart's triumph (and apparent stealing away of the soprano's affections) upsets him. At about 00:39:35, Salieri is speaking but the stage music continues offscreen (at a reduced volume). Then (or at about 00:39:40) the reverse happens: we see the stage (and hear music) but Salieri is heard speaking at normal volume in voiceover narration. The aria ends at 00:40:40.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Amadeus and Nondiegetic-Onscreen Sound

Of the four possible combinations of the terms "diegetic," "nondiegetic," "onscreen," and "offscreen," the most difficult one to grasp (and certainly the rarest) is "nondiegetic-onscreen." We discuss the other categories at length in HtM, Ch. 3, but give only a brief mention to "nondiegetic-onscreen." The strictest case (for which I know no example) would be a superimposed image positioned in, say, one quarter of the frame, from which speech or music is heard that is not part of the physical world of the film (a choir of angels, perhaps). Alternatively, a person onscreen might be recalling a speech or musical performance, and the sound track carries that speech or music rather than the usual diegetic-onscreen sound. In such a case, the "nondiegetic-onscreen" is really a variety of point-of-view sound (also discussed in HtM, Ch. 3).

If so, then sound in connection with flashbacks induced by a character's recalling a past event would also be considered "nondiegetic-onscreen." Obviously, this is easier to grasp--and more useful--in shorter segments (not, for example, in Million Dollar Baby, where the entire film is a flashback).

In the earlier sequences of Amadeus (1984), short flashbacks are used several times. In almost all cases, the effect of memory, the nondiegetic as the past, is enhanced by sound advances and sound lags. At 00:13:00, for example, the elderly Salieri is talking to the priest (offscreen). At 00:13:14, we hear the sound of a small fortepiano-spinet, then shortly after we see the Austrian Emperor playing with a more youthful Salieri at his side, coaching him. At the end of this short flashback, cut back to the elderly Salieri talking but the music persists for another 2-3 seconds, a sound lag.

The same device is used for another flashback shortly after (beginning at 00:14:00), and also elsewhere in the film.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

To Have and Have Not

We discuss the song performance “Am I Blue?” in HtM, Chs. 1 & 7. To Have and Have Not also features three songs composed by Hoagy Carmichael himself: “Martinique,” “Baltimore Oriole,” and “How Little We Know.” The second and third of these appear several times, and those instances are worth studying and comparing. Of course, reasons for the different placements (in relation to screen action) are of interest, but the cues also provide multiple examples of simple, pedagogically useful diegetic/nondiegetic treatments.

“Martinique” is the simplest: it’s the first music we hear in the Hotel Martinique (@ 00:11:37; out @ 00:12:44). Students might speculate on why it is heard entirely offscreen. (One reason is that Carmichael would have to be paid more, not only for his song but for his playing it onscreen.) Part of this music is heard again in the middle of a long sequence of cues starting @ 01:31:50. About 40 seconds of “Martinique” can be heard with the time lapse scene change @ 01:36:10.

A complex arrangement of “Am I Blue?” actually starts this sequence – although the level is quite low, you can hear the tune clearly when the door to Bogart’s hotel room opens. This cue is also striking for the way action contrasts with the music; that is, the latter is neutral or even anempathetic.

“Baltimore Oriole” is associated with Bacall’s character from the outset; it segues from “Martinique” after brief clapping and goes out @ 00:14:02. Again entirely offscreen, this even continues after Bacall and Bogart go upstairs to the hotel’s second floor rooms, only to be cut off when the door is closed. In again at 00:22:40, it goes out abruptly when the policemen’s offscreen shots are heard. A nearly three minute cue @ 00:37:15 is a more complex orchestration of the melody; this is generally quiet like the diegetic cues heard going on downstairs; however, not only is the orchestra too large for Cricket’s (Carmichael’s) band, but the music is treated dramatically as underscoring. The last appearance of “Baltimore Oriole” is in the long sequence referred to above – one can hear faint clapping @ 01:34:00, then Bogart fires a shot, then music picks up again with this tune. (All this is improbable of course, but convenient for sound track design.)

“How Little We Know” is treated in a way that is faintly reminiscent of Casablanca (hardly the only thing to do that in To Have and Have Not). Cricket is shown composing the song @00:45:58 (with a dissolve back to the hotel), thus bringing narrative attention to it, as also happens with “As Time Goes By” in Casablanca during the scene between Sam and Ilsa. Even after the scene changes, Bogart is heard briefly humming the tune while on his fishing boat. At 01:24;48, we see Bacall at the bar humming the tune as she prepares for a performance, which takes place between 01:29:00 and 01:30:35 (compare this performance with “Am I Blue?”). And, finally, “How Little We Know” closes the long cue sequence that began @ 01:31:50 -- it comes in @ 01:38:24 and plays continuously from there to the end, the tune passing into a nondiegetic orchestra for a few seconds with the end credit title.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Fotoplayer on YouTube

YouTube has a number of excellent videos of restored Fotoplayers. The videos show how the sound effects modules were operated by little rope pulls suspended near the top of the instrument. I've embedded two clips below, but there are many more (search under "fotoplayer," "photoplayer" and "photo player").

The Fotoplayer was a mechanical theater piano with sound effects and organ attachments. It was made by American Photo Player (hence the confusion in spelling). This article on the Photoplayer from the Encyclopaedia of Australian Theatre Organs provides an excellent introduction to this general class of instrument as well as some additional photographs.

(H/T Julie Brown)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Orchestra, Conversation, and the Censorship

This is an excerpt from chapter 14 of poet Vachel Lindsay's The Art of the Moving Picture, which was first published in 1915. (The excerpt below is from the 1922 edition. The passage is little changed from the original.) In this passage, Lindsay argues against using music, but his argument is more economic and egalitarian in spirit than aesthetic: whereas film promises the same entertainment in the small hamlet as available in the big city—"the reels run through as well as on Broadway or Michigan Avenue"—even a medium-sized city hasn't the musical resources to match the orchestra of a big city: "The picture with a great orchestra in a far-off metropolitan Opera House, may be classed by fanatic partisanship with Grand Opera. But few can get at it. It has nothing to do with Democracy." Lindsay himself professes to prefer the sound of soft conversation of the audience, as he takes this murmur to be the sound of democracy.

He also considers the possibility of synchronized sound film. He does not actively object to it, but recognizes better than most in 1915 that it would require a vast improvement in the recording technology and mean a substantial revision in the way stories are presented.


Whenever the photoplay is mixed in the same programme with vaudeville, the moving picture part of the show suffers. The film is rushed through, it is battered, it flickers more than commonly, it is a little out of focus. The house is not built for it. The owner of the place cannot manage an art gallery with a circus on his hands. It takes more brains than one man possesses to pick good vaudeville talent and bring good films to the town at the same time. The best motion picture theatres are built for photoplays alone. But they make one mistake.

Almost every motion picture theatre has its orchestra, pianist, or mechanical piano. The perfect photoplay gathering-place would have no sound but the hum of the conversing audience. If this is too ruthless a theory, let the music be played at the intervals between programmes,[190]while the advertisements are being flung upon the screen, the lights are on, and the people coming in.

If there is something more to be done on the part of the producer to make the film a telling one, let it be a deeper study of the pictorial arrangement, with the tones more carefully balanced, the sculpture vitalized. This is certainly better than to have a raw thing bullied through with a music-programme, furnished to bridge the weak places in the construction.

A picture should not be released till it is completely thought out. A producer with this goal before him will not have the time or brains to spare to write music that is as closely and delicately related to the action as the action is to the background. And unless the tunes are at one with the scheme they are an intrusion. Perhaps the moving picture maker has a twin brother almost as able in music, who possesses the faculty of subordinating his creations to the work of his more brilliant coadjutor. How are they going to make a practical national distribution of the accompaniment? In the metropolitan theatres Cabiria carried its own musicians and programme with a rich if feverish result. In The Birth of a Nation, music was [191]used that approached imitative sound devices. Also the orchestra produced a substitute for old-fashioned stage suspense by long drawn-out syncopations. The finer photoplay values were thrown askew. Perhaps these two performances could be successfully vindicated in musical policy. But such a defence proves nothing in regard to the typical film. Imagine either of these put on in Rochester, Illinois, population one hundred souls. The reels run through as well as on Broadway or Michigan Avenue, but the local orchestra cannot play the music furnished in annotated sheets as skillfully as the local operator can turn the reel (or watch the motor turn it!).

The big social fact about the moving picture is that it is scattered like the newspaper. Any normal accompaniment thereof must likewise be adapted to being distributed everywhere. The present writer has seen, here in his home place, population sixty thousand, all the films discussed in this book but Cabiria and The Birth of a Nation. It is a photoplay paradise, the spoken theatre is practically banished. Unfortunately the local moving picture managers think it necessary to have orchestras. The musicians they can secure make tunes that are most [192] squalid and horrible. With fathomless imbecility, hoochey koochey strains are on the air while heroes are dying. The Miserere is in our ears when the lovers are reconciled. Ragtime is imposed upon us while the old mother prays for her lost boy. Sometimes the musician with this variety of sympathy abandons himself to thrilling improvisation.

My thoughts on this subject began to take form several years ago, when the film this book has much praised, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, came to town. The proprietor of one theatre put in front of his shop a twenty-foot sign "The Battle Hymn of the Republic, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, brought back by special request." He had probably read Julia Ward Howe's name on the film forty times before the sign went up. His assistant, I presume his daughter, played "In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree" hour after hour, while the great film was rolling by. Many old soldiers were coming to see it. I asked the assistant why she did not play and sing the Battle Hymn. She said they "just couldn't find it." Are the distributors willing to send out a musician with each film?

Many of the Springfield producers are quite [193] able and enterprising, but to ask for music with photoplays is like asking the man at the news stand to write an editorial while he sells you the paper. The picture with a great orchestra in a far-off metropolitan Opera House, may be classed by fanatic partisanship with Grand Opera. But few can get at it. It has nothing to do with Democracy.

Of course people with a mechanical imagination, and no other kind, begin to suggest the talking moving picture at this point, or the phonograph or the mechanical piano. Let us discuss the talking moving picture only. That disposes of the others.

If the talking moving picture becomes a reliable mirror of the human voice and frame, it will be the basis of such a separate art that none of the photoplay precedents will apply. It will be the phonoplay, not the photoplay. It will be unpleasant for a long time. This book is a struggle against the non-humanness of the undisciplined photograph. Any film is correct, realistic, forceful, many times before it is charming. The actual physical storage-battery of the actor is many hundred miles away. As a substitute, the human quality must come in the marks of the presence of the [194] producer. The entire painting must have his brush-work. If we compare it to a love-letter it must be in his handwriting rather than worked on a typewriter. If he puts his autograph into the film, it is after a fierce struggle with the uncanny scientific quality of the camera's work. His genius and that of the whole company of actors is exhausted in the task.

The raw phonograph is likewise unmagnetic. Would you set upon the shoulders of the troupe of actors the additional responsibility of putting an adequate substitute for human magnetism in the phonographic disk? The voice that does not actually bleed, that contains no heart-beats, fails to meet the emergency. Few people have wept over a phonographic selection from Tristan and Isolde. They are moved at the actual performance. Why? Look at the opera singer after the last act. His eyes are burning. His face is flushed. His pulse is high. Reaching his hotel room, he is far more weary than if he had sung the opera alone there. He has given out of his brain-fire and blood-beat the same magnetism that leads men in battle. To speak of it in the crassest terms, this resource brings him a hundred times more salary than another man with [195] just as good a voice can command. The output that leaves him drained at the end of the show cannot be stored in the phonograph machine. That device is as good in the morning as at noon. It ticks like a clock.

To perfect the talking moving picture, human magnetism must be put into the mirror-screen and into the clock. Not only is this imperative, but clock and mirror must be harmonized, one gently subordinated to the other. Both cannot rule. In the present talking moving picture the more highly developed photoplay is dragged by the hair in a dead faint, in the wake of the screaming savage phonograph. No talking machine on the market reproduces conversation clearly unless it be elaborately articulated in unnatural tones with a stiff interval between each question and answer. Real dialogue goes to ruin.

The talking moving picture came to our town. We were given for one show a line of minstrels facing the audience, with the interlocutor repeating his immemorial question, and the end-man giving the immemorial answer. Then came a scene in a blacksmith shop where certain well-differentiated rackets were carried over the footlights. No one heard [196] the blacksmith, unless he stopped to shout straight at us.

The phonoplay can quite possibly reach some divine goal, but it will be after the speaking powers of the phonograph excel the photographing powers of the reel, and then the pictures will be brought in as comment and ornament to the speech. The pictures will be held back by the phonograph as long as it is more limited in its range. The pictures are at present freer and more versatile without it. If the phonoplay is ever established, since it will double the machinery, it must needs double its prices. It will be the illustrated phonograph, in a more expensive theatre.

The orchestra is in part a blundering effort by the local manager to supply the human-magnetic element which he feels lacking in the pictures on which the producer has not left his autograph. But there is a much more economic and magnetic accompaniment, the before-mentioned buzzing commentary of the audience. There will be some people who disturb the neighbors in front, but the average crowd has developed its manners in this particular, and when the orchestra is silent, murmurs like a pleasant brook.

Source: Lindsay, Vachel. The Art of the Moving Picture. 2nd ed. New York: MacMillan, 1922.
Picture Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division