Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Oscars and Musical Pillaging

The Academy Award nominees were announced today. Cue fanfare!

For the few of you that have been dedicate readers of "Music in the Bubble" over the past two years, you may remember that I used to do a bit of film reviewing (see here, here, here, and here). And like everyone, I am awards obsessed, even when I try to convince myself they don't mean anything, and always get it wrong (Crash? Over Brokeback? Really? REALLY?).

So I can't help from commenting on today's nominee announcement in some way. First, the category of what I'm excited about:

1. "Tree of Life" for best picture! And Terrence Malick for best director.

This was definitely my favorite movie of the year, but I'll admit it can be a difficult viewing experience without the proper mindset. It certainly has won its share of accolades (Palme d'Or at Cannes), but I didn't think it would be acknowledged by the more middle-brow Academy. If nominees reflect what Hollywood thinks of itself, then I feel "Tree of Life" reflects their highest artistic aspirations.

2. "The Muppets" get a nomination for best song.

Most people are talking about the fact that there are only two songs nominated (I think it's because they changed the rules so that only songs that actually appear in the film can be nominated, and only one from a particular film). But I'm just excited thinking about Brett McKenzie/Jason Segal/Walter the Muppet getting to do ridiculous things on big-time TV. I disagree over their choice of song though. I would put my money on the opening "Life's a Happy Song," the most joyously upbeat, earnest song I've heard all year.

3. "The Artist" did not get the most nominations (though it did get a lot).

Ok, so I have some problems with this movie. There are a lot of neat tricks throughout, it's well-shot and such, but it never really coalesced for me into an affecting, singular product. The story and characters felt somewhat overshadowed by all the gimmickry. It still may walk away with the top prize, but without all the technical award nominations, there's a good-sized segment of the Academy voting bloc (the technicians/cinematographers) that will likely not be voting for it. If I had to put money on anything, it would be "The Descendants," (as a makeup for "Sideways" and the rest of Payne's career), or "The Help" (the closest thing nominated to a successful, middlebrow drama). The techies will probably split between "Hugo" and "Tree of Life," leaving these actor-driven dramas at the top.

But anyway, my major complaint with the artist comes with its musical score (and its best score nomination of course, and it's win at the Golden Globes). This is my greatest concern going into the awards. Yes, I did just bury the lead again.

Ludovic Bource's score for "The Artist" has generated about as much controversy as a musical score can. A little over two weeks ago, actress Kim Novak, co-star of the Hitchcock film "Vertigo," saw the much-buzzed "Artist." Soon after, she bought out a full page ad in the trade magazine Variety lambasting the film for using music from Bernard Herrmann's famous "Vertigo" score. She called the usage a "rape," feeling that her body of work "...has been violated by the movie." Novak strongly objected to the film's re-appropriation of the music as a way to score a cheap "in" with the audience, eliciting emotions that were a product of "Vertigo" rather than the new film itself.

Bource was taken aback by this comment, and responded on the red carpet at the Golden Globes (and elsewhere, everyone asked him the same question) that the use of Herrmann's score was in tribute. Since "The Artist" is a love-letter to the art of making films, then it's only appropriate to reference famous bits of film history. Bernard Herrmann's widow Norma, then responded on BBC Radio 4, saying that although the producers of "The Artist" had never asked or even said that they were using Herrmann's cues, she said that he would have approved of their use in this context.

I agree with Novak that the use of Herrmann's "Veritgo" cues was improper, but only because of the fact that I agree with Herrmann's widow that pre-existing film music would have been acceptable to use as a send-up. When I saw "The Artist," I had known of the musical controversy, and paid close attention to when the Herrmann music popped up. I was expecting to have it jump out at me, provide a substantial musical change of pace, and be evident that this was in fact a musical reference. Instead, the famous "Vertigo" love theme blended imperceptibly into the rest of the score. The movie used a re-recorded version, giving it the same timbre as the Bource's new music cues. Bource's own musical aesthetic is that of a normal, contemporary film composer - it's subtle, and more about the general atmosphere than tunes or intricate counterpoint. It certainly is far removed from the overstatement of classic composers like Herrmann, Korngold, and others whose scores demanded the attention of the viewer, and became a character themselves.

Because Bource uses the "Vertigo" themes in this way, reorchestrating them rather than playing them in their original, grainy atmosphere, he isn't as much sending up Herrmann's work as much as plagiarizing it. By altering Herrmann's music to fit his particular aesthetic, Bource is admitting that he can't write a great tune like Herrmann's "Vertigo" love theme, and so must steal it and record it in a way that divorces the theme from its original sound-context. A true send-up makes it clear that one is referencing or lampooning a particular style. It has to be obvious, like "Back in the USSR" - the Beatles sending up the Beach Boys. In his interviews, Bource is trying to make it seem that his use of Herrmann's music is in loving tribute. Bource may actually feel that way, but the way he actually uses the "Vertigo" cues feels like a robbery rather than a tribute. It would be same as if James Horner said that the reason he steals themes from Copland, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich is that they are in tribute to their great work.

Like music critic Alex Ross said, it could be some complex meta-message about the borrowing of Art in a media-saturated world, or it could just be that Bource is a hack. A hack that's the odds-on favorite to win the biggest music award in Hollywood.

I'm not saying that I am against borrowing music for different movies. It's many times hugely effective. Kubrick was an expert (all that crazy Gyorgy Ligeti in 2001, all of Clockwork Orange), Wes Anderson is an expert (um, like everything), "Tree of Life" was made by its intense use of various classical themes. It can even be effective to recompose a theme into a new soundworld, what Bource tried to do in "The Artist." In my favorite film from last year - "The Social Network" - Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross decided to arrange Edvard Grieg's famous "In the Hall of the Mountain King" from the first Peer Gynt Suite in a weird, electronic way to accompany the big regata a little over halfway through the film.

This usage works because it plays on contradictions, like all good, clear references do. Reznor and Ross's score was eerie and ambient in the best way, and very un-classical. By appropriating a famous classical theme for the scene that symbolizes the Winkelvii's inability to be truly the best at anything, the score effectively satirizes the dying old world of aristocratic privilege they live in, a world being taken over by technology. Reznor and Ross were not trying to be Grieg, like Bource is trying to be Herrmann, but were using Grieg to make a specific point.

The ineffectiveness of Bource's appropriation of the music of "Vertigo" crystalizes for the me the problems of "The Artist" in general. "The Artist" is allegedly a tribute to the silent film era, but it doesn't embrace the sound world of silent films. Bource's score is an amalgam of Herrmann-ish and noir tropes. There aren't any notable mad-cap scenes with ridiculous percussion sound effects. The era that Bource seems to fetishize is not the silent era, but the Hollywood heyday of the '40s and '50s. In this way, "The Artist" feels like a tribute to a fictional past, an era that never actually existed. Having such nostalgia for a time that didn't actually occur is a very problematic idea - an idea central to the conservative and Tea Party mindset. While a film like "Singin' in the Rain" or a musical like "Follies" gets to the heart of bygone eras of entertainment through their embrace of contradiction and pastiche and clear references to famous films of that actual era, "The Artist" prefers to rewrite film history, and steal the good stuff to make it seem like a well-made movie.

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