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.