Hitchcock and Beethoven: Privileging Greatness

At the beginning of his article, Bordwell distinguishes between art and classical narrative cinema; art cinema opposes classical narrative in that it loosens cause-effect sequence of events (“characters in the art cinema lack defined desires and goals” (582)), emphasizes reaction over action and the individual over group/society, and the narrative is driven by realism and authorial expressivity (“what is essential is that the art film be read as the work of an expressive individual” (584)). To this latter point, Bordwell states that the author is “a formal component, the overriding intelligence organizing the film for our comprehension” and that “deviations from the classical canon—an unusual angle, a stressed bit of cutting, a prohibited camera movement, an unrealistic shift in lighting or setting—in short any breakdown of the motivation of cinematic space and time by cause-effect logic—can be read as ‘authorial commentary’” (584–5). Furthermore, Bordwell concludes his article with a discussion of Hollywood’s inclusion of art cinema techniques.

“Just as the Hollywood silent cinema borrowed avant-garde devices but assimilated them to narrative ends, so recent American filmmaking has appropriated art-film devices . . . More interestingly, we have seen an art cinema emerge in Hollywood . . . Yet if Hollywood is adopting traits of the art cinema, that process must be seen as not simply copying but complex transformation. In particular, American film genres intervene to warp art-cinema conventions in new directions (as the work of Altman and Coppola shows). It is also possible to see that certain classical filmmakers have had something of the art cinema about them. Sirk, Ford, and Lang all come to mind here but the preeminent instance is Alfred Hitchcock” (587–8).

While Bordwell’s article illuminates the distinction between art and classical cinema, I can’t help but read his comments as primarily a reinforcement of the distinction between “art” and “popular” or “good” and “bad.” Of course, this division does not belong solely to Bordwell or even to film.

In music there is privileging of the composer as a “tortured artist” who must turn to music convey their inner soul. Beginning with Beethoven, the composer becomes a Romantic hero who overcomes adversity through their art and, as a result, haunts the next generations of composers. There is then an emphasis placed on innovation and uniqueness that must be found throughout the composer’s oeuvre, a way of distinguishing the “good” composers from the ordinary composers, whose music might make enjoyable listening but not be “worthy of study.” Through this privileging, one can retrospectively make an esteemed lineage of great composers and, subsequently, great genres and musical nations—Mozart over Dittersdorf, opera over musicals, Germany over the United States. However, the determining factors of “greatness” are arbitrary, used equivocally to justify valuing one thing over another or to raise a “popular” thing to the level of “art.” Similar to the way the classical filmmakers cited by Bordwell incorporated art cinema techniques into their films thus reinforcing their privileged status, certain composers of popular genres are deemed more worthy of recognition for their incorporation of art techniques.[1]

Returning to this week’s readings, we find the concept of the “tortured artist baring their soul through their work” in the profile of David Milch. Does the knowledge of Milch’s relationship with his father, drug abuse, and self-destructive behavior make us watch Deadwood with greater fervor? Do we now view Deadwood as the work of an “expressive individual”? Maybe. But I’m not sure that means we should view other shows or films as less significant. While Hitchcock, Beethoven, and the like may be worthy of study, the importance Bordwell places on the overriding intelligence and organizational prowess of the author appears to be an unnecessary justification for valuing certain works over others.

[1] For example, Stephen Sondheim is a music theater composer who writes in an operatic style and is, therefore, considered better than other music theater composers while not quite achieving the elevated status of opera composer.

Creating and Inverting the Soundscape: Music in Deadwood S1E4

When Jack McCall walks into the saloon and kills Wild Bill at the end of episode 4 of Deadwood, his action cues a sequence unlike anything we have seen in the show thus far. Akin to an opera act finale all the characters gather in one place as Jack is corralled to the middle of the camp; accompanying this sequence is foregrounded music that aligns with the characters’ and audience’s disbelief. In order to understand why the music in this scene is out of the ordinary for Deadwood, we must first address the construction of the show’s soundscape.

Screen music is meant to act as a guide of sorts for the audience, cueing them to various aspects of the onscreen action: setting, time, mood, and (often) the characters’ inner feelings. In this respect, the opening sequence for Deadwood behaves as it should; the title sequence opens with a “twinkling” banjo that is overtaken by a rowdy fiddle blaring away on double stops (two notes played at once) and note bends, the banjo serves as accompaniment along with unnamed percussion instruments (reminiscent of pots and pans). The theme recalls Appalachian folk music—a tradition with connections to bluegrass and skiffle (sometimes called jug bands, this music is created by using homemade instruments)—and immediately cues to the audience that this show, its characters, and events are going to be gritty, messy, and, to some extent, improvised; in other words: this is a western.

Apart from this opening sequence, however, the music in Deadwood defies our expectations, primarily through its absence. As Geuens states, “[Film sound] can help us question the visible, make us discover something we would have missed in the world, even suggest an extra dimension to ordinary life” (200). In music’s absence, however, we are left in an uncomfortable swarm of characters with unknown motivations and allegiances. Do any of these characters actually trust each other? Should we trust any of these characters? We’re not sure and the small amount of underscoring in each episode does little to reassure us. Musical cues in the first three episodes primarily consist either of the fiddle playing a quiet drone or a plucked string instrument alternating notes; in these cases the music is static and, while it keeps us attentive in the moment, these cues only add to the mystery rather than clarifying what is happening or how we should feel. Furthermore, when music is present it is relegated to the background of the soundscape, its volume below that of the speaking characters and other “realistic” noises—horses, background conversations, the clanging of glasses, etc., aka the sounds of the camp. These other sounds are vital to the show and without them “the characters on the screen are not quite real . . . As for the world they move in, it does not appear solid. It feel undeveloped, inadequate; it is found wanting” (Geuens, 204). The hierarchy in Deadwood, then, is dialogue, realistic sounds, and, lastly, music. However, in the aforementioned scene at the end of episode 4, this hierarchy is inverted.

In the death of Wild Bill scene, the music begins quietly at 55:13 with a banjo that recalls the opening theme; as Jack runs through camp the music is foregrounded and sounds that once would have been higher on the hierarchy—the sounds of boots in the mud, yelling bystanders, and the chasing mob—are dampened, allowing the music overtake the soundscape. The banjo’s melody becomes more complex with each main character that joins the action; beginning with an alternation between two notes, the melody gradually adds notes following the alternating ones to become a full-fledged theme. When Jane leaves her room in the hotel to join the other camp members in the street, her addition is paralleled in the music as a quiet string drone that accompanies the banjo. The hierarchy is righted again as Bill’s fall from the chair serves as the cadence for the music.

After almost four full episodes of the show we have grown accustomed to how the music behaves—it is barely even there and does not give us substantial information to help us make sense of the plot. By breaking with these established expectations, the extensive use of music feels cinematic and is a break with the “realism” of the show that enforces a sense of disbelief at Bill’s death for the both the characters and the audience.