Music hath charms to soothe the savage beast

A few disconnected thoughts this week congeal around the subject of music:

1.)  Once again this year I showed a Dave Fleischer “bouncing ball” cartoon in class (Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, 1926), and once again I was greeted with incredulity that anyone would ever be willing to participate in singing in a public place like a movie theater.  I can never quite decide how to take that response, but it fascinates me.  Is the singing the problem?  Is everyone that worried about their own abilities?  Is it just too public?  There are a lot of things which probably enter into the equation, but it’s a striking break with pretty much most of recorded human history.  Singing has always been an acceptable social activity worldwide, whether around a campfire, in a parlor, or in a theater (with a live performer, lantern slides or a motion picture).  In the last fifty years we’ve reduced it to something which is acceptable in only a limited number of carefully controlled venues such as karaoke bars and the seventh-inning stretch at any baseball game.  Since my grandfather used to talk about going to a streetcorner to participate in impromptu singalongs (probably in the 1930’s) and films occasionally exhorted audience members to sing along with characters on screen through the end of the Second World War, one wonders what changed that made public warbling so anathema.  And this isn’t a question of asking anyone to solo, it’s just anonymous singing within a large group.  At a certain point after childhood, we simply cross it off our list of acceptable behaviors, and that’s that.  It’s unfortunate in a lot of ways, but it also says interesting things about how we relate to the image on the screen in a movie theater – and how we relate to each other.

2.)  Twice in the last week I’ve thought about how music interacts with memory, especially when it’s connected to film.  In the first instance I was in a bookstore, while they played the entire soundtrack to Fiddler on  the Roof.  Now, I have nothing against Fiddler on the Roof, but I wouldn’t call it a particular favorite.  The interesting part (to me) was that I pretty much knew every word to every song.  I haven’t seen or heard any of it for years, but it was all still there, sitting in my head.  I attribute this to a certain period in grade school when HBO would frequently show musicals, and when I spent an inordinate amount of time watching them (at least partly because of my sister’s enthusiasm for the form).  There’s clearly something about music that makes it useful as a mnemonic device, and that’s amplified when connected to a narrative.  I once sat with a friend of mine to watch The Sound of Music, and she recited (and sang) the ENTIRE film, word for word, as we watched.  As with me and Fiddler, it was something she hadn’t seen in a long time, but she’d seen it dozens of times as a child, and it just stuck.

The second time I thought about music and memory was while viewing my copy of The Music Man last weekend.  Once again, despite not having seen it for over a decade, I remembered nearly every word (and sang along enthusiastically in my living room).  The interesting part here was that I would have sworn (prior to re-watching it) that the film was a lively, vivacious piece of work from top to bottom.  In fact, it’s one of the least cinematic films you’ll ever encounter.  It single-handedly put the lie to my recent assertion in class that F.W. Murnau’s “unchained camera” ended the era of movies as simple filmed theater.  Clearly, it did for those who cared to see it ended.  But the director of The Music Man, Morton DaCosta, had engineered the Broadway version and was obviously loath to tinker with success.  This early shot does nothing more than reproduce a stage set:

But even worse, throughout the film the actual stage blocking is simply reproduced verbatim, as here:

The curious part is that this in no way detracted from my enjoyment of the film, especially when taking into account the tour-de-force performances of Robert Preston and Paul Ford.  My memory of those performances, but even more of the actual music, mitigated the staidness (and downright dullness) of the actual filmmaking.  The music, in other words, helped to cement the film in my mind as something more generally lively than it actually is.  Which is not to say that I enjoyed it any less, but the recent viewing helped to clarify why it works so well.

3.) My last musical observation involves the feature film I showed in class this week, F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise.  In many ways the pinnacle of silent filmmaking, Sunrise tells a deceptively simple story by applying the most advanced technical methods available.  The result is endlessly rewarding, and its reputation has continued to grow despite contemporary criticism which found it “cold” and “soporific.”  One of the keys to the film’s success is Hugo Reisenfeld’s pitch perfect musical score, which manages to hit every right note.  The lumbering motif which accompanies George O’Brien through the swamp to meet his lover, the cacophonic carnival music, and the muted horn which simulates the desperate cries of the rescue party seeking the lost Janet Gaynor (among other examples), perfectly reflect the tone of what’s happening on screen.  Watching it for the umpteenth time this week emphasized again the importance of music to my own responses to a film.  A good score plants itself in my head, and becomes a crucial component of most of my favorite films.  Music adds that extra emotional punch, but it also functions as an additional element of the narrative which colors the entire experience of the film.

None of this is especially new thinking, but the confluence of the bouncing ball cartoon, Fiddler on the Roof, The Music Man and Sunrise, once again emphasized how primal music is in determining our response to the images we see on screen, how we interact with them as an audience, and  how we remember them.

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One thought on “Music hath charms to soothe the savage beast

  1. How coincidental that you write a piece about music in film just as my lovely ladyfriend picked the movie SOUND OF NOISE (available on Netflix Instant) for us to watch, which immediately made me think it might be useful for one of your classes. It might not be as strong an example as SUNRISE’s scoring as to the impact of sound on film (especially because most would consider SUNRISE actually-silent), but it’s a darn good one. Audio editing at its most involved, if not its cleverest.

    And even if it’s not a good teaching example, it’s worth checking out.

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