Music Ruined by Movies – New Yorker (blog)
Yet another wondrous piece that’s applied even more grotesquely to the movie’s action—Handel’s aria “Lascia ch’io pianga,” from the opera “Rinaldo,” which accompanies scenes of sadistic beating—comes through the movie unscathed. That’s because it’s impossible to listen to music impersonally, and, for me, the cinematic identity of the Handel aria has long been fixed in beauty. It has been, in effect, vaccinated against bad associations by one especially good one, in Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville’s 1978 video “France/Tour/Détour/Deux/Enfants.” For better or worse, there’s an entire realm of music that becomes indissociable from the movies in which it’s used. The touchstone for the phenomenon is when it’s impossible to hear the music in any context without the movie scene in which it’s featured coming to mind.
My favorite example is the employment of one of the grandest works in the classical repertory, in a way that runs the risk of utter trivialization, mockery, and vulgarity. Yet, the moment turns out to be an exaltation of classic art, transforming the low joke into a warm and hearty recollection. In Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “A Letter to Three Wives,” from 1949, one of the women of the title, induced by the letter in question to look back at her marriage and wonder where it went wrong, recalls the opening theme of Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto. In her mind, she puts lyrics to it, which are squawked out by a studio-manipulated voice (once heard, it can’t be forgotten). But Mankiewicz turns his little joke grim in the long, brilliantly written and perfomed episode that follows, in which the piece of music—its duration, which in most performances takes around forty-five minutes, as well as the specific recording of it that’s heard—plays a crucial and memorable part. I listen often to recordings of this concerto (here’s a wonderfully dark and vehement performance).
With light classics, the comedy is built in, but a great movie holds a prism up to its lightness and finds historical depth, as Jean Renoir’s “Rules of the Game” does with Saint-Saëns’s “Danse Macabre” and Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” does with Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 5. But I can also never think of the Sextet from Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” (including when I saw the opera performed at the Met in 1998 in the unjustly maligned Nicolas Joel production) without envisioning the opera scene in Jean Renoir’s 1934 version of “Madame Bovary” (yet another of Renoir’s great films from the thirties that’s unavailable on DVD). Ingmar Bergman’s last film, “Saraband,” involves the world of professional musicians, and the very title refers to a movement in a Bach cello suite that’s played in the film to great dramatic effect (he also features it in “Cries and Whispers”), but the composition that I can never hear apart from what Bergman does with it—harrowingly—is the Scherzo of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony.
A good movie adds value to the music by way of ideas—the discovery of something in the music that wouldn’t be apparent upon listening, or the use of it in a cinematic idea that’s worthy of the composition. Weak movies, such as “Nymphomaniac,” are the tofu to the sauce of the music; Franck’s Sonata gives much to the movie, which, in turn, returns nothing, adds nothing, reveals nothing. Wes Anderson is perhaps the reigning master of filmed music criticism, with his revelation of the hidden worlds of popular songs as well as classical music. By contrast, Quentin Tarantino displays admirable chutzpah in his use of pop songs without necessarily plumbing their specificities (any bouncy strut would have done for the torture scene in “Reservoir Dogs,” but “Stuck in the Middle with You” is stuck with it—until someone else uses it better).
That’s the argument in favor of the score composed for a movie: it comes with no associations and derives its identity from the film in which it’s used. For that matter, it exists in order to emphasize the moods and emotions of the specific movie—which is why, for most good movies, the score is superfluous (and watching a scored movie silent is a crucial test of its merit). With a good movie, the images are themselves a kind of music and the score is used not as emphasis but as counterpoint—or else, isn’t needed at all, as in cases where movies get excessively flavored by compositions not quite up to the cinematic invention. The problem is usually not with the music itself but with its use—with the temptation to lay it in by the yard as sonic upholstery. The choice to strip out the score should be an option on all DVDs; it would offer the chance for home experiments worth performing.