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The Trucker Scene from Thelma & Louise (1991)

One of the most iconic moments from Thelma & Louise (1991) is when they surprise a lewd trucker by shooting up his haul after he refuses to apologize for being rude and mistreating women.

It’s deep in the third act when fate and poor decisions have pushed the two characters to full revenge mode. It is also the moment that appeared in the trailers (most likely because it allowed Ridley Scott to flex his action directing skills). One of the more interesting and puzzling things about this soundtrack is that the song that accompanies it, “Better Not Look Down” by B.B. King, was originally supposed to accompany the final sequence as the T-Bird drives into the abyss of the Grand Canyon. It was, after all, the song that inspired Callie Khouri’s award-winning screenplay.

According to Claudia Gorbman, it was intended as a celebration of their lives and as a pretty blatant pun: better not look down as your car falls. Of course, this song didn’t accompany that iconic final scene because nearly everyone agreed that it was too grotesque. Its use at a different point in the film’s third act is telling. The characters have nearly completed their respective transformations. They have shed their makeup, their skin is bronzed by the dirt and sun, and they appear in an exhausted and emotionally raw state as they make their drive through the Southwest. They hear the music from their car radio and bounce along to it in more frenetic movements than the Temptations sing-along from an earlier point in the film. The way that Thelma, in particular, moves to “Better Not Look Down” is a clear contrast from the more relaxed responses to music that pepper this story. Once they signal to the trucker that they are pulling over, the song continues as non-diegetic music and accompanies as the camera focuses on a reflection of the trucker in the shiny hubcap. He celebrates what he thinks is his lucky day through a brief twist dance move. After they shoot up the truck, Hans Zimmer’s blues scoring enters as Thelma triumphantly grabs the trucker’s cap and both women scream in delight.

Despite the scene’s depiction of an emasculated trucker, the music helps spectators root for the two doomed heroines. How can you not celebrate their misplaced vengeance when there is an upbeat blues playing? Blues is a genre normally coded as masculine due to its use of guitar solos. Yet, in this scene it functions differently; its beats, female choir, and lack of V-I resolution (and telos) help it work as expressions of the characters’ rage against the patriarchy with the trucker as proxy. Some could choose to ignore that larger framework and just poke fun at the trucker – he obviously isn’t very bright. That they perform such an act of violence as women also manages to help this film also reach an even broader audience (hence its use in the film’s promotion): filmgoers enjoy their violence and explosions.

This film was extraordinarily popular despite the fact that the U.S. was deep in the midst of a backlash against feminism. It struck a nerve and went on to be nominated for 6 Academy Awards (with Sarandon and Davis competing with each other for Best Actress). Even though some complained that the film celebrated violence against men at gunpoint, the scoring of scenes like this managed to win over a huge swath of the movie-going public.

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Compilation Soundtracks

Next week we close out our brief history of Hollywood film music. Inevitably, this forces us to confront the practice of pop compilation soundtracks. Here is a link to this week’s additional reading from Anahid Kassabian’s Hearing Film (Routledge, 2000). While Kassabian uses pop songs to understand women-centric films of the late ’80s and early ’90s, other collections and monographs consider the proliferation of pop compilation soundtracks within the contexts of nostalgia and the (then) booming record industry. Consider that this practice grew into fruition alongside a revival of “classic” scoring practices for summer blockbusters…

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Bernard Herrmann and Saul Bass in Psycho’s Title Sequence

At Monday night’s screening, I warned a student that she would know during the opening title sequence whether or not the film’s music was too much to bear. I was referring to the jarring sounds and buzzing, all-strings arrangement in Bernard Herrmann’s score. In the opening minutes of Psycho (1960),  Herrmann and Saul Bass (title sequence master of post-war film)* introduce the main themes of the film in geometric terms. Yes, the film involves a theft and some semblance of romantic love between Marion Crane and Sam Loomis, but those plot elements are in place to provide the motivation (or “MacGuffin,” as Hitchcock would have called it) to get those characters to the Bates Motel where the main action takes place. Instead of theft or love, the film prioritizes dualistic nature of Norman Bates’s personality, the competing desires of Norman and Mother, and how that pattern of murder eventually ends. What better way to propel the audience into that fractured psychological state than to introduce minimalist, two-toned geometric lines with an equally minimalist (serif free!) typeface traveling across the screen.

A few years ago, a blog dedicated to title sequences featured a nice discussion of the pairing of Herrmann’s music and Bass title design.

In the space of a few short minutes, with his minimal toolkit and Bernard Herrmann’s jagged score, Bass creates a parallel visual tension to the film that tells the audience everything they need to know about the plot, without saying much of anything at all. He artfully sets the tone by asking the viewer to read between the lines — quite literally — but he also asks that we read into them.

I would argue that Herrmann’s score serves this function, but, due to leitmotivic conventions, it complicates what the title sequence can mean. It is a rare thing to hear such an emphasis on the string section in a film (muted, no less). As Fenimore outlines in his article on sound and music in the film, there are basically five musical units that trade back and forth in the film’s prelude, all of them varying in how they approach small, repeating rhythmic patterns with one featuring strong melodic content. These figures are much more identified with Marion Crane (as some have already noted in written responses, Norman’s music and Mother’s music differ), her flight from Phoenix, and the tension surrounding her ill-fated attempt at theft. In this case, the music is all Marion, and the circuitous repetition mentally prepares the audience for the “musical tearing” (Fenimore, 87) in the film’s climax.

Fenimore, 85.

Fenimore, 85.

Fenimore, 86.

Fenimore, 86.

Thus, I would argue that the music and imagery of the title sequence represent the pairing of the fragmented psychology of a serial killer in Bass’s title designs with the circumstances (and victim) that set in motion the killer’s downfall in Herrmann’s music. It is an economy of story-telling through sound and image that I have yet to see elsewhere.

*Another film that we are covering this week, The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), also features the title sequence artistry of Bass.

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Post-War Film Music

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Next week, we will screen Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic Psycho (1960). Alongside the film, I’m asking you to read Ross Fenimore’s essay on the use of music, sound, and voice in that film. Fenimore is a visiting assistant professor of music at Davidson College and he is an expert in all things Madonna.

In addition to Psycho, we will be discussing a few scenes from The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). For those of you looking for a way to discuss The Man With the Golden Arm in your mid-term papers, it is available on Amazon.com Prime Instant.

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Meanwhile on Tumblr

Meanwhile on Tumblr

I gave a more thorough answer to a question on the semiotic link between Carmen Miranda and Chiquita Banana.

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Desi Arnaz

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There is a connection between Miranda and Chiquita Banana, but it’s a bit more complicated. The song, like much of the music Miranda sang in Hollywood musicals, had almost nothing to do with Brazil. Notice it was written as a calypso (from Trinidad and Tobago), not a samba or marcha, and the original jingle lyrics were intended to educate the public about the banana’s nutrition rather than play up its tropical origins. During the campaign’s launch, the United Fruit Company and the BBDO ad agency picked an anthropomorphized banana to do the singing – the lady would come much later. The anthropomorphized outfit looks less Miranda-like and more reminiscent of the stage clothes worn by Cuban musicians. Miranda almost never wore skirts with ruffles, and her blouses, if they were ruffled, were a result of being worn off her shoulders. This is because her stage outfit had its origins in the Afro-Brazilian baiana. Earlier images of the anthropomorphized banana also showed maracas which are common throughout Latin America (and during this period were linked in the U.S. with Cuban musicians). The connection was there (since Miranda was extraordinarily popular during this period, and she sometimes wore fruit on her head), but everyone could claim it was far more reminiscent of a vague South-Of-The-Border essence than it actually was.

Feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe wrote about the semiotic link between Miranda and the Chiquita Banana campaign back in the late ’80s.

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Mid-Term Paper

Two possibilities:

  • Write about music in the representation of gender and/or race in a Hollywood film covered in class up to the conclusion of World War II.
  • Take a talkie film from Unit 2 and imagine how it would have been put together, directed or conceived without synchronized sound. This is a speculative paper, and it can consider the variety of ways that filmmakers attempted to control (or not) the sound and music that accompanied silent films.

Both paper options must be based on information in the Wierzbicki text. They both must justify their claims through evidence and they need to have a clear point or thesis.

They should be 3-4 Pages, double-spaced, regular 1-inch margins, in a standard font. Papers must be emailed as PDFs by 11:59PM on October 11th.

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The Pass-Along Song

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During the class screening of Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), I heard a number of attendees audibly groan in annoyance at the emergence and re-emergence of the title song in the opening minutes of the film. Perhaps this strong reaction was due to the way the theme was passed-along from one character to another with no clear break between the realism of dialogue and action and fantasy of breaking out into song. Indeed, one of the more peculiar things about this film musical is that so many of the songs have a much more subtle transition between a marked performance in the film’s diegesis and the more robust accompaniment of the orchestration such as the ringing of the bell on the trolley to induct “The Trolley Song” and the music-as-entertainment set-up for “Under The Bamboo Tree.” (Indeed, what sets “The Boy Next Door” apart is that it is one of the few moments that doesn’t transition from realism to fantasy, and instead functions as a musical monologue.)

However, that there was something grating to so many of you in the opening song warrants more scrutiny.

In the minutes before the film provides Judy Garland’s version of the song at the piano (accompanied by her sister Rose), Agnes and Grandpa (and others) sing the song absent-mindedly. They aren’t singing the song for any audience in particular, but rather they sing for themselves as they whistle (outside), trounce around the house, waltz in the hallway, try on different hats (eventually settling on the fez hat*), or return from tennis across the street. This production of the title song is exceptionally self-aware. Grandpa even forgets the lyrics, replacing them with “la la la la,” as he admires himself in the mirror.

Interruptions and forgetting abound in this song. It’s almost as if the characters know that this is the title song and they never give it the break-out status that normally accompanies such songs in movie musicals from this period. Compare “Meet Me in St. Louis” to “Oklahoma!” from Oklahoma! (1955), which was based on the Broadway show from 1943.

Perhaps part of the reason the film uses the song in this way is that it was actually written during the time that the film is set and is loaded with inside jokes and sexual innuendos that only make sense from that time and place. According to Raymond Knapp, it was written in 1904 with many lyrics directly referring to what people would have encountered at the World’s Fair (“hoochie-coochie” referring to the “exotic dance” at the Egypt exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair a decade before that eventually became known as the “striptease”; “tootsey” a reference to prostitutes turning “tootsie-wootsie” into a term of endearment between spouses with sexual undertones) thus leaving the characters without the self-awareness for the song’s references. He says, “beyond the casual hip-thrust from Judy Garland, none of the performances of the title song betrays any awareness of these meanings; indeed, Grandpa can’t even remember the exact words to this part of the song” (97). Even the ways the song is sung sets it apart from the rest of the songs in the film. It is sung straight-ahead slightly afield from the ’40s pop-vocal approach (with more scoops and jazz-influenced vibrato) that abounds throughout the rest of the film. Keep in mind that this film was released at the height of U.S. involvement in World War II. So much of what Hollywood produced in musicals were meant to fulfill two functions: remind the audience why they were sacrificing so much for the war-effort while also providing an escapist nostalgia. That this song was of the period the film portrays in such a “realist” manner (for a musical, of course) made the film feel less like a straight-ahead narrative and more like a series of greeting cards from the past. As it unfolds, the interrupting and forgetting is reminiscent of someone trying to remember something and missing some of the (more uncomfortable) details before being reminded of what actually happened. Perhaps that is what is happening in these opening minutes.

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* There was a lively debate from other academics watching the class twitter feed on the meaning of Grandpa’s fez hat. Most agreed that it was a Shriner’s hat with Orientalist undertones. In Jim Buhler’s words, “Shriners=’Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine’ or so says wikipedia, so no argument there.” Sam Baltimore, a specialist in musical theater, tweeted, “homosociality, Orientalism often used as substitutes for homosexuality in film musicals. Shriners hat = both.” Whether or not such coding for grandpa was obvious, there is something peculiar and humorous about him and his hat.

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Music and Scoring in Hollywood’s “Classic” Period

Meet_Me_In_St_Louis_Poster

Next week is “Classic” Hollywood week, which means we’ll be discussing the music in genre films, musicals (comparing MGM to Fox), and “serious” epics. In terms of musicals, I’m limiting our material to MGM’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) starring Judy Garland and two scenes from Fox’s The Gang’s All Here (1943). We are supplementing our discussion of the Hollywood Musical with Shari Roberts’ analysis of Carmen Miranda’s most iconic performance. The article lays out the political context of wartime entertainment while also offering a nuanced read on race and ethnicity. In terms of the “serious” film, odds are it will be Citizen Kane (1941), but no promises.

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The Foot-Drag in Chaplin’s Unintelligible Song

Modern Times (1936) has so many hilarious scenes and remarkable moments, I thought I would write a brief comment on the sounds and music just before the audience is treated to unintelligible lyrics during the floor show.

As Chaplin dances around the floor and learns that his cuff with the lyrics has flown off his arm, he drags his foot to create a noticeable sound. What is remarkable to me is the way the dancing and music here are perfectly synced – something that clearly had to be rehearsed – and added to the humor of unintelligibility and pantomime.

As he drags his foot on the floor, listen to what it’s doing in relationship to the music. The foot is emphasizing the up-beat as the orchestra vamps adding to the anticipation as they wait for him to begin singing. The foley effect almost sounds like brushes on the head of a snare drum, adding a musical level of anticipation that is already apparent in Chaplin’s physical comedy. His movements are funny; however, the addition of a sonic effect well outside the realm of simple mickey-mousing, he takes one of the film’s main conceit of utilizing synchronized sound to make the ultimate silent film one step further. The song’s lyrics (a combination of many languages) are completely beside the point. What matters are Chaplin’s gestures and pantomime in winning over the crowd. The emphasis on that foot drag is just one of many ways that the scene makes a commentary on the role of talkies versus silent films. It also doesn’t hurt that the scene is incredibly entertaining.

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French Composers in Silent Films

During last week’s class, we briefly touched on the main difference between music composed for silent films in the United States versus France. In general, the biggest contrast was that film composers in the United States often weren’t well-established as art music composers prior to working in film while it was normal for successful composers from other artistic media (opera, ballet, symphonic poems) such as Camile Saint-Saëns and Erik Satie to compose for films. In many cases, these composers used throw-away material that they hadn’t used elsewhere.

Camile Saint-Saëns composed a “special score” for L’assassinat du duc de Guise (1908) which was distributed with the film – an innovation in its day.

Experimental music favorite Erik Satie lived up to his quirky reputation by composing the score to Entr’acte (1924), an experimental short film directed by René Clair which served as the prologue and entr’acte of a ballet performance. The 90-second sequence at the beginning stars Satie and Clair.