Film + Music = Zombie-ism?

by Barry Drogin

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"We present for the first time, under the supervision of MM. Erik Satie and Darius Milhaud and directed by M. Delgrange, furnishing music to be played during the entr'actes. We beg you to take no notice of it and to behave during the entr'actes as if the music did not exist."

This announcement, made at a Paris art gallery opening in 1920, was ignored by the patrons, who listened intently to the "wallpaper music." Sixty years later, our senses completely modernized by muzak and recorded music, we are able to "take no notice" of background music, whether it be our favorite album playing while doing homework, a sanitized version of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" pumped over supermarket speakers, or a film score.

Satie's muzak is art, high-quality, if you will, written for artistic reasons, not exclusively monetary ones. If any of today's muzak is of high-quality (and some comes pretty close, believe it or not), it remains lumped with the rest. No one will admit admiration for a muzak piece.

Similarly, film music is not looked upon highly by the classical music world, when it is looked upon at all, despite the large roster of famous names that belong to its ranks: Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Dmitri Shostakovich and Arthur Honegger, to name a few. Curiously, such scores are only acknowledged by audiences and critics when they are distilled into a suite for orchestra without the film. This is, in part, a reaction against recorded music, but it is also probably due to misguided notions of what constitutes film watching and what constitutes music appreciation and enjoyment.

There is a film scoring "industry," a grand history of manipulative soupy scores that bring up the strings for romance and the diminished chords for suspense. There are also, however, great scores, and it is possible for the sophisticated filmgoer to be conscious of the music without destroying the experience of film- watching. Consciousness merely enhances the critical side of appreciation; in other words, one can be a lost zombie controlled by Hollywood puppeteers and a thinking human being at the same time. Unfortunately, just as no one wants to go to a bad film, no one wants to leave a film thinking it is bad, either, so zombie-ism is the rule of thumb.

Involved in the fight against zombie-ism is the Brooklyn Philharmonia, presenting an evening of "Music + Film" on February 13 in the Great Hall. In tandem with a film projector, the orchestra will play works by Satie, Milhaud, Schoenberg and Antheil (one cannot say for the first time: the Joffrey Ballet Company recently "performed" the Satie, the re-release of the silent classic "Napoleon" was accompanied (in Radio City Music Hall) by a live orchestra, and, of course, the days of silent cinema were also the days of improvisatory piano scoring)....

The Great Hall concert is but a small step in what will have to be a long trek for the art of film scoring. Film music is not reviewed by critics, except for the occasional one-sentence judgement by film reviewers, and what do they know? Also, discussion of film composers is usually a mass media Sunday feature phenomenon, readily passed off as below "art" by the snobbish classical world.

Surprisingly, the film scorers themselves don't seem to realize how much power they have: they are willing to settle for money and a film credit. Almost every US-made film (or TV movie, for that matter) would flop immediately if stripped of all its music. Many ridiculously silly movies have, as their only saving grace, a brilliant film score (Prophecy, for example, or the recent Altered States, with music by John Corigliano, which deserves a full-length review of its own. And let's not forget Jaws...). Unfortunately, until the composers consider their work to be art and strive for a share in the artistic control of a project, and until someone starts to make some intelligent comments about film and music and how they work together, film music will never be considered art; it will never even be considered.

(A man of my word, on March 4, 1982 I ended a review of two dissimilar movies thus:)

To end this review, I'd like to talk a bit about the film scores, which are usually ignored by movie reviewers. Part of the allure of "Four Friends" was the promise of a new Elizabeth Swados score ("The Haggadah," "Runaways," "Dispatches," "Alice in Concert," "Lullaby and Goodnight"). I must point out that it's not very hard to write a competent film score; in fact, it takes a certain amount of deliberation to mess things up if the movie alone is good. When a musical celebrity takes on the task, however, there is the hope that the music will both add considerably to the quality of the movie and be interesting enough to stand on its own. The Swados score is exceedingly dull and a dreaded sell-out --- unfortunately, the way movie producers think, that may mean we'll be hearing many more Swados film scores. There was an interesting harmonic modulation during the opening scenes, but thirty seconds do not a great film score make.

Imagine my delight at finding John Rubinstein's music for "Whose Life Is It Anyway?" to be so interesting, instead! The movie is a think piece, and the score successfully communicates its own intellectuality by being solely comprised of neo-classic fugues and canons. It's scored for brass and strings, which gives it a mock-regal grandness, while its contemporary (music) slant reflects the wittiness of the movie situation. Perk your ears up when you see the film: there's a long judge-decision sequence, and stick around for the end titles!

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Last Updated: August 4, 2007