Sometimes Your Teacher Lets You Blog About It

This is a project for a sweet class I'm in called Classical Music in Pop Culture. Object of the game is to watch films and examine how music is utilized. Word.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Claire de Lune

Published in 1905 by Claude Debussy “Claire de Lune,” the third movement of the popular piano sonata Suite Bergamasque seems to represent wealth, power, and beauty. Performed on the piano, the song is very different from other pieces written by Debussy. There is an approachability to the music that has been recognized by many popular filmmakers. Part of this approachability may have to do with the simple melody and beautiful chord progression of the song. Unlike pieces like the Preludes or the String Quartet in G, which seem to be going everywhere and no where at once, “Claire de Lune” is a piece you can hum along to with predictable timing and melody. This is probably one of the main reasons the song has been picked up in pop culture and used all over the place, including completely illogical appropriations such as Uptown Girls – as discussed below.
One of the piece’s earliest appropriations in film is in George Stevens’s Giant, where the song’s reputation of signifying wealth – and, in particular, sudden or undeserved wealth - starts. The song seems to follow a character named Uncle Bawley around. Uncle Bawley – if I can remember correctly – is the old sage character who appears to sponge off the wealth of his friends and family members. He offers advise while continuously drinking burbon. The use of “Claire de Lune” in this context suddenly represents wealth and wealthy people, but it also has a hint of disrespect. Uncle Bawley’s circumstances are never completely described, and he seems to be kind of a loaf. Old money carries a sense of respect and propriety, and Uncle Bawley is merely sponging off the other characters’ reputations. A large part of this film is the discussion of old money and new money, new money not achieving great respect, and even being looked down upon. Being a contemporary classic, “Claire de Lune” also seems to fall under this fate. It is one of those pieces, like the ones we have discussed in class this semester, that fall somewhere between pop and classical. The song – and the composer – doesn’t have the years and criticism under its belt to be properly considered “classical” by scholars, but it doesn’t have the riffs and pop chart play of popular music. Because of this reputation, the song – like Unlce Bawley - is not as respected in the way that someone like Mozart or Beethoven would be respected. However, it is still beautiful and appealing to music scholars and the public alike. It has worth, but its worth is measured in a different manner.
The song is used very notably in the 2001 film Ocean’s 11. The piece first is heard diegetically near the beginning of the film as eleven con artists meet to discuss their plan to rob some casinos. They are mingling at a private party while the song plays in the background. The next time we hear “Claire de Lune” is at the end of the film, after the men have successfully robbed the casino. They listen to the song while standing in front of the Belagio fountains. Again the music appears to be diegetic, as the fountain is always accompanied by music and the sequence of water bursts goes along with the melody of the music. This appropriation seems to be very similar to the use in Giant. The song once again represents new money and richness. This time, however, the song has a hint of dishonesty in addition to the disrespect. Though we are cheering for these characters in this anti-hero heist film, we also recognize the unlawfulness of the entire procedure. The song has a hint of fraud to it, but we revel in that fraud. This is true most obviously of the second use of the song in the film, but also when it is playing at the party. The man whose large and beautiful house the characters are partying at came into his wealth through cons, and only stands to get richer in this new deal. Again “Claire de Lune” represents wealth with a hint of disrespect.
So what is going on in this horrendous misuse of celluloid, Uptown Girls? The situation is set up perfectly for a similar use of the song, following in the vein of new and undue wealth, as Molly lives her luxurious but immature life enabled by her dead rock star parents. Molly is unable to make an honest living just as the men in Ocean’s 11, and she is unable to use her wealth in a dignified manner like Uncle Bawley in Giant. However, the song is not used in conjunction with her character. Instead, it is played as Rain is sick and listening to it in her bedroom. In this case all classical music – not just “Claire de Lune” – is used to signify an unknown stuffiness. Rain is unable to just be a kid. She can’t spontaneously dance to pop music, but instead prefers the structured nature of classical music. The film uses Mozart and Tchaikovsky to attempt to get this point across. Molly, as Rain’s nanny, has never heard any of this stuff classical music before and must teach Rain how to behave like a kid. What the filmmakers fail to understand is the nature of the piece and how very popular it is already. “Claire de Lune” is largely recognized and used in pop culture, in addition to coming from a composer who has been called “impressionist” and does not represent the kind of music they are trying to classify as boring or stuff at all.
As a result, what happens in Uptown Girls is completely incomprehensible. This scene where “Claire de Lune” is used calls attention to the music without making a point. The song doesn’t represent wealth or fraud, but rather being “Grown Up,” and surely another song without such a calming and approachable melody, and one that hasn’t been used so recognizably across the pop-culture spectrum would have made more sense. But, I think considering these aspects of the soundtrack is giving the filmmakers more credit than they deserve.

Friday, December 08, 2006

This Post Might Be Almost As Long As the Movie. 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey came out in a difficult time period for both hard science fiction and classical music film scores. Predated by films like The Thing from Another World, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Godzilla, 2001: A Space Odyssey offered a kind of hard science-fiction that genre fans weren’t quite used to. The film incorporated a sense of verisimilitude that rubberized pod people don’t quite measure up to. After a series of lousy reviews from important voices like Pauline Kael (wikipedia.org), 2001 won a few academy awards and soon became a wildly popular and important film. Titles such as “The Blue Danube” and “Also Sprach Zarathustra” became even better known and film viewers continue to incorporate 2001 into their expectations of science fiction. After the release of 2001, sci-fi was never the same. Kitschy, cheap genre films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers were much harder to pull off after the level of verisimilitude had been raised so high. Along with another film released in 1969, Planet of the Apes, science fiction started to appeal to a much larger fan base than the usual genre crowd and viewers came to demand new things of the genre.
In the first half of film history – and even lingering somewhat today – using classical music in film scores was very unpopular among film and music critics alike. Using pre-existing music in what was seen by music scholars as such a crude and popular medium was almost sacrilege. It seemed to suggest that the two forms of classical music and film were on the same level, which they clearly weren’t. Classical music in films was also unpopular to film scholars who thought that it distracted from the image, or lead to less creative efforts by film scorers (Duncan, 10-33). It seems that because of this widely held opinion, the score of 2001: A Space Odyssey – consisting of entirely pre-existing pieces – was extremely unpopular among scholars. Kahn Atkins claimed that the music in the film had a “frozen, congealed-in-aspic quality; another, that they are a throwback to the clichés of silent theatre music, with ‘tried-and-true’ classics from ‘the old masters.’” (Duncan, 20-21). However, it seems to me – because of the subsequent popularity and parodies of the two most popular pieces in the film – that it is largely because of the recognizable score, placed alongside an extremely unrecognizable setting, that the film because so popular among audiences.
“The Blue Danube” by Johann Strauss was originally only mildly successful. In fact, Strauss himself is quoted as saying, “the Devil take The Waltz.” However, through the years, “The Blue Danube” has become one of the most widely recognized pieces of classical music (wikipedia.org). Though Kubrick could never have known the future reception of 2001, it seems to mirror that of the “Danube.” It took time for audiences to warm up to – and eventually admire and love – these two artworks. In his book, Charms that Soothe: Classical Music and The Narrative Film, Dean Duncan talks about how both music and images create their own narratives, and when those narratives combine in the form of film, both narratives inform the story. This seems to be the case with the “Danube” and 2001, as they boost each other up to eventually create wide appeal.
The piece first occurs in relation to a special effects spectacle near the beginning of the film. As images of giant, intricate spacecrafts – as opposed to the cardboard flying saucers in previous science fiction – the Waltz plays all the way through. Eventually – and with the appearance of humans – the Waltz picks up pace. At this point in the film there is nothing frightening about the technology being used in this setting. The music clues us in to the fantastic, almost regal, position of technology in this world. Humans have successfully learned to interact with the space stations and lack of gravity. The song offers a calm background. There is no sense of urgency in the piece, only a cresendoing sense of importance. In this way, the classical score here is parallel to the image. This scene will later contrast with a more contrapuntal scene when technology has failed the human race and HAL is being disassembled while singing the popular song “Daisy Bell.” Going back to the Atkins quote, the song does have a “frozen” feel to it. It is frozen and time and endlessly floating in space as an example of the perfection man has achieved in the technological world.
The most famous use of classical music in 2001: A Space Odyssey is the other Strauss piece “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” As the song plays when pre-historic man discovers the use of tools – and thus violence – and then again as man enters a different realm of being in the end, we get the sense that the song symbolizes change. The change appears to be both triumphant and terrifying at the same time. The film seems to suggest that though mankind must progress through certain stages, something is lost in the process, in this case, our innocence and control. The song is based on Nietzsche’s book of the same title. Nietzsche once described his own book as “the deepest ever written,” which, judging by Kubrick’s lack of response to questions about meaning and symbolism in 2001, he might believe about his own work. The book was written in a new, experimental style and famously proclaimed that “God is dead.” Written into the narrative of the musical piece is this same phrase. God is dead because we have killed him. When coupled to the visual images of the film, this death seems to have come about by the invention of tools and technology.
Since the release of 2001, these songs have been used for parody countless times. “The Blue Danube” is featured in Spongebob, Ferris Beuhler’s Day Off, Dogma, Curious George, Austin Powers, etc. In fact, it seems that after 2001, it is impossible to use the song for anything but parody. The film is so well known that the song will always be associated with images of zero gravity space activity. The same is true of “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” It is used in The Simpsons and Zoolander as direct parodies of the film. It is also used frequently when sports teams enter the arena, as a symbol of power and importance. Like the “Danube,” the associations with 2001 are too strong to ever divorce the song from the film.
Besides just having an affinity for classical music, Stanley Kubrick seems to be tapping into a larger theme with his use of the Danube and Zarathustra. He seems to be suggesting that man’s moral evolution was halted with the introduction of tools and that it can only be driven to the next level when man successfully overcomes those tools. The first used of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” marks the beginning of art, as the monkey picks up the bone and proceeds to smash everything in his path. Art develops from man’s mastery of technology, and so art is also limited by technology. With the use of classical music, Kubrick implies a sense of perfection. Classical music is the epitomy of civilization. It is the best man could ever do with the technology he has created. At the end of the film we see a reincarnation of art and beauty, suggesting that there is something greater to strive for. However, the classical score implies that in the state that we know – dependant on technology – classical music is the greatest we can hope to achieve.

Duncan, Dean. “Charms that Soothe: Classical Music and the Narrative Film.” Fordham University Press: New York, 2003

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

In a Chinese film centered on the importance of classic art set in the reeducation period of the late 60s, it is natural that classical music would become a big part of the actual plot rather than the score. The inclusions of Mozart and Tchaikovsky are all diegetic, with one of the main characters (who also narrates the film) playing the pieces on his violin. At first the villagers on the small town the boys are sent to to be reeducated are concerned about the music. As the boy plays violin they question whether Chairman Mao would approve of this activity, but the boy assures him that Mozart wrote the piece for Mao himself to sooth the villagers’ anxieties. So instead of the classical underscoring of most recent films that use classical music in the context of their films, here classical music is a rebellion of sorts. It represents something foreign and dangerous. This is in sharp opposition to its use in Before Sunrise where the classical is supposed to remind us of something familiar and timeless. Enjoying Mozart actually sets these characters apart from the other villagers, suggesting that there is something rebellious in the two boys who would be so familiar with the foreign in a society that attempts to block out the foreign completely.
One of the uses of classical music that stands out the most is in an abortion scene. Standing as a guard, Luo plays a piece from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake on his violin to cover up the noises that the girl might make. The piece he plays occurs at the climax of the ballet, when the two lovers take their own lives in order to be together in the afterlife. I think this is significant to the plot in two ways. First, the literal taking of life in the scene is emphasized. The abortion was necessary because of the cultural situation at the time, but not wanted. This again underscores classical music as a dangerous element to these outsiders’ personality, and by playing it during this intimate moments, it implements the girl in its rebelliousness. Second, the song foreshadows what is to happen between the three main characters by the end of the film. There is a strong sense of tragedy in the song that shows that what will happen between the girl and the father of the baby will not be ideal. However, the situation is not ideal for the player of the violin either, who is also in love with the girl. In the end the kids are separated forever – by the girl’s own decision – and though they all remain alive and healthy, the boys will never see her again. The music from Swan Lake is hinting at this separation that will eventually occur.
Towards the end of the film, classical music comes to mean something else. Instead of representing the foreign, the villagers have become accustomed to the music and have grown to be entranced by it. Luo is encouraged to play the Mozart piece they think was made for Chairman Mao, but at this point I think if they found out that the song wasn’t actually made for Mao, they would still want to hear it. The boys have infiltrated the village with their knowledge of Western Culture. This is opposite of the intended effect of the reeducation of the Red Guards. Instead of becoming the perfect communist peasants, they were able to spread their ideas to the communist peasants. In the end, classical music isn’t seen as something rebellious and dangerous, but triumphant.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Before Sunrise/set

These are silly films. While I was watching them in order to write this blog, I was scared that my roommate would walk in and relentlessly make fun of me for reveling in the idealistic situations the films set up for us continually, with the pretense of realism. But, there is something appealing in both Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, in radically different ways. The first film plays on a young sense of idealism and romanticism, while the second film attempts to combat cynicism that an older generation of film viewers will be familiar with.
Before Sunrise (1995) starts out with The Dido and Aeneas Overture playing as part of the nondiegetic score. The rest of the soundtrack is along the similar lines with the use of Vivaldi, Beethoven, Straus, and Bach. The music of the film is attempting to connect to a sense of classical timelessness. This kind of love story has repeated itself throughout history (further back, even, than the Dido and Aeneas epic) and has stability in our culture. The film is extremely idealistic, chronicling the perfect pairing of two complete strangers on a one-night-stand in Vienna. The use of a kind of music that has stood the test of time is tapping into our preconceived notions of the story itself - a story of boy-meets-girl that has always and will always be appealing to us. The use of the Dido and Aeneas song complicates that theme by introducing a hint of tragedy that might mirror the broken union between those two classic figures.
The familiarity of these composers is also notable. While Bach, Vivaldi, and Beethoven are very familiar to us, the songs that were picked for the score are fairly unfamiliar. For example, instead of using a piece of music from his Four Seasons, the film uses "Concerto In B Flat Major For Violin And Oboe With Ripieno Strings, RV 358," which will not be as familiar to a popular film audience. I think this parallels what the film is trying to do stylistically. They are using themes and storylines that are very familiar, but attempting to introduce us to a new way of telling that story.
The second film takes a different approach. There is one tiny bit of a classical song that is hardly noticeable as diegetic music. In opposition to the first film, the filmmakers aren’t trying to connect the story to anything classical or romantic. Instead they are more concerned with portraying a sense of realism. They use mostly source music and when it’s not source, it’s composed and performed by Julie Delphy and – we assume – the Celine character. By pulling us out of this idea of classicism that we formed in our connections with the first movie, Before Sunset is reminding us of real life. In Before Sunrise, we are somewhat ignorant of the two characters’ outside lives. They come into the philosophical discussions that they have, but Vienna remains a secluded world where outside problems do not seem real. In Before Sunset, the two characters have attachments (wives, kids, boyfriends) that are key elements of the storyline. How Jesse feels about his relationship with his wife is very important to his character and how we will eventually view his decision to stay with Celine.
The conversations the two characters have are also much more realistic. Instead of the idealism that the first film employs, the second is far more cynical and derivative of lives full of disappointment and mediocrity. It is even filmed in real time, again to make a claim of realism. The Nina Simone song at the end of the film is not an attempt to make the scene more romantic, but to point to the eccentricities of Celine that Jesse finds so appealing, tying us into the conversation the two had earlier (in both films) about those imperfections. These eccentricities don’t exist in the straightforward classical music that plays throughout Before Sunrise, but are key to the Julie Delphy music and source music in Before Sunset. Nina Simone, as Celine points out, is anything but straightforward. She takes long pauses and goes on tangents, something that a composer like Mozart or Bach would never do in their use of closed form.
Before Sunset points out that even though we would like love to be as straightforward and uncomplicated as a piece of classical music (as the music in the Aeneas Overture), it is more like a Nina Simone song, unpredictable and diverted and convoluted.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A Weekend with Mozart

Weekend (1967), directed by Jean-Luc Godard, is a difficult film, not only for its linear inaccessibility and confusing interludes, but also for its extreme violence and explicit sexual content. While challenging the idea of linear narrative and plot and questioning our relationship to media violence, Godard also challenges the necessity of a parallel soundtrack, meant to incite emotions that accompany similar feeling images. The use of music is most pronounced in a scene involving a piece from Mozart’s "Piano sonata K. 576." This extremely long, single-take, circular shot uses this piece of classical music to both underline the main themes of the movie, but also to act as an ironic backdrop that questions the didactic position of the director.

Jean-Luc Godard was first a critic and then a filmmaker. He wrote for the famous French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema. Godard watched and wrote about hundreds of conventional Hollywood films, and in so doing, developed a love for this linear style of filmmaking. And yet Weekend is about as nonlinear as it gets. We move from scene to scene with little to no connection. Characters are introduced in one scene only to never be seen again. Title cards interject interesting quotes and references that have nothing to do with any sort of plot structure. Even though Godard deeply admired linear Hollywood cinema, he is questioning the need for linearity in this film (and all of his films) by taking a Brechtian approach to cinema. He demands that we do not get emotionally involved in the film, but take a step back and look at the film from a more intellectual view. This is especially important in Godard’s discussion of violence in the media that is unfolded in the film. The film starts with mild instances of violence. It is merely alluded to, or minor in its consequences. As the film continues, instances of violence get more and more severe as Corinne and Roland encounter countless car wrecks and mangled dead bodies. As the characters become more comfortable with the violence (acknowledging that they are characters in a film in the typical self-reflexive style of Brechtian theatre) we, as viewers, becoming increasingly uncomfortable. It reaches a point in the film that we question the appropriateness of even viewing the material. The self-reflexive style of the film creates this uncomfortable reaction. We know that it is a film and are constantly reminded, so we don’t get wrapped up in any sort of plot. Instead of viewing the violence as necessary in the plight of a protagonist as would be conventional in classic linear narrative, we see the violence for what it is: horrible brutality. Godard is pointing out the process of becoming desensitized in his characters by removing us from the process. This makes general references to the global situation in 1967 at the beginning of the Vietnam War, the first war in which we were provided with visual images. He is pointing out the danger of viewing media and violence and seeing it as commonplace as the characters in his film do.

Godard’s soundtrack strengthens this approach to filmmaking. Instead of wrapping us up within a plot, the soundtrack stresses the nonlinearity. There are periods when the soundtrack comes in and out without any apparent meaning. However, there is one section within the film where the music stands out as an integral part of the meaning of the film. It is the only display of diegetic music in the film. Paul Gégauff, a famous French New Wave screenwriter, plays Mozart’s music from “Piano sonata K. 576” on the piano. This character is discussing his distaste for modernist music while playing and talking about how traditional music like Mozart’s has influenced all of the modern rock bands in 1967. This scene could be an ironic statement about the film. Godard is making a film that is entirely nonlinear, and in this strange interlude he is questioning that style of filmmaking. Since Godard had such an affinity for classical Hollywood narratives, he is pointing out that another, valid, style of artistic expression is available for our viewing pleasure. However, by interjecting this scene amidst all this violence, it has the affect of boring us. We are anxious to get back to the shocking violence that the rest of the film provides for us. We don’t want to dwell in the traditional, linear style of Mozart because we are too anxious to see what else Godard will throw at us. The music in this scene is less of a respite from the violence, and more of an unwelcome distracter. For once, in this scene, we relate to Corinne and Roland, who look utterly bored by this musical performance. They are not interested in the ancient, but in modern progress. Unfortunately, this progress (symbolically represented by the many vehicles crashed along the side of the road) certainly has its downsides and violent outcomes.

The scene is also ironic because while Paul Gégauff is talking about the linear stylings of Mozart, the camera is circling the town in one continuous shot. It suggests that even though the music is linear, the life that exists around the music is more circular. It is interesting that this takes place in a farming community. Charles de Gaul was currently active in a campaign to bring culture to the unwashed masses and Godard is poking fun at that policy (which he was against in principle) in this scene. No one in this town is interested in Mozart. They aren’t interested in traditional, linearity. Instead, their lives are extremely circular (as depicted by the camera movements). Every morning they must get up and perform the exact same tasks to the same ends. Perhaps Godard is making the statement that we live our lives in a more nonlinear fashion, and that film should mimic that reality.

*I should add that in order to write this blog I consulted my friend Aaron Wood and David Sterritt's audio commentary.*

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Musica Poetica

As we have discussed Carl Orff's Carmina Burana (specifically the O Fortuna! chorus) in class, another piece by Orff came to mind. The piece "Gassengauer" from Musica Poetica is used in pop culture, too. And though it is used far less frequently than the, probably, overdone O Fortuna!, it's implications seem to be somewhat similar.

Both Badlands (1973) and True Romance (1993) use the Musica Poetica piece composed by German composer Carl Orff and Gunild Keetman, or a version very similar to the piece (in order to avoid paying royalties, no doubt). Along with the similar choice of music, both films have similar motifs. Both films are about a couple on the run from the law. Both involve killing sprees and various forms of violence, and yet both end in what the films see as a successful coupling.

It is interesting that Terrence Malick chose Musica Poetic to run throughout his film. With Orff's reputation as a Nazi sympathizer (ignoring his Jewish roots), Carmina Burana has been associated with violence and war. As the knights in Excalibur ride into battle, the O Fortuna! chorus rings out, pushing them towards violence. Badlands seems to confirm those associations with Orff's name, but with the upbeat, light xylophones of Musica Poetic, he creates scenes that seem entirely unexpected. In contrast with the pounding tympanies of O Fortuna!, Musica Poetica seems to suggest a more peaceful scenario. Though Badlands was released eight years earlier than Excalibur, Malick already seems to be drawing on not only the associations of Orff's music, but on Orff's name itself, using the piece as a somewhat ironic background for a disturbing film. As Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen travel across the country on their killing spree, Musica Poetica implies a playfulness and an immaturity to their actions. The song was co-composed by Genild Keetman, who along with Orff, developed a style of teaching music to children. Musica Poetica, then, is not only associated with violence because of Orff's name and alleged Nazi ties, but also with childhood and innocence. This combination of what could be considered opposite notions is jarring. This volatile effect is exactly what Malick was going for as he tried to create interesting and sympathetic characters who, because of their innocence, get involved in the most horrific of violence.

This tradition of innocence paired with disturbing violence appears again in True Romance, a film that is perhaps an homage to Badlands. Hans Zimmer creates a knock-off of Musica Poetica as the two main characters in the film get involved in violence that is, again, over their heads. As the two characters delve further and further into a seedy underworld that they accidentally stumble upon, we are meant to relate to them and cheer them on. Even after they participate in a violent showdown at the end, the song plays and we rejoice that they have survived it all. Their love is pure and innocent even as their actions are just the opposite. Zimmer went on to work with Terrence Malick on his film The Thin Red Line (1998).