Monday, May 28, 2007

Words and Music: Funny Business in the Cinema

Terry Teachout ponders the question of film music, and why the "great" film scores seem to belong to dramas or thrillers, rather than to the classic screen comedies. He notes that other dramatic forms seem to have no trouble blending great music and high comedy: His favorite operas, Mozart's Marriage of Figaro and Verdi's Falstaff, are both comic, though they're hardly laugh-a-minute gagfests. Nearly all of the classic musical-theater scores B.S. ("before Sondheim") belong to comedies.

But film music is a different species from most dramatic music. I'm not sure if it can be "great" in the way that a ballet, an opera, or a musical-theater score can be -- and even it can, perhaps it shouldn't be. Viewers generally regard film music as appropriate or inappropriate, rather than "good" or "bad" in an aesthetic sense, because most film music is not designed to occupy the foreground of a moviegoer's attention. Sometimes the music finds its way there anyway, either because the image on the screen holds little visual interest (title sequences in movies prior to Star Wars are a perfect example of this phenomenon) or because the music has an unusual or problematic relationship to the image (as in Kubrick's films 2001 and A Clockwork Orange). By and large, we expect film music to be seamlessly fused with cinematic images, providing emotional and narrative cues to the action but never dominating the moviegoing experience as such.

Screen comedy is expected to tickle the funnybone more than the eye or the ear. It is generally performance- and script-driven, not director- or music-driven, and for the performers and script to have their best effect on an audience, the mise-en-scene must be generally self-effacing. This is why most of the "classic" film comedies have had relatively anonymous craftsmen at the helm: The Marx Brothers' Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera were directed by Leo McCarey and Sam Wood; the Laurel and Hardy classic Way Out West was directed by James W. Horne. Essentially, their job was to set the camera up to film the comic shtick, then get out of the way.

Great directors with a distinctive cinematic style have generally shied away from funny business: Orson Welles never directed a comedy, and Steven Spielberg has never directed a good one. Hitchcock directed a few straight comedies, most notably Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but none of them rank with his best work, and Scorsese's only comedy to date, After Hours, is anything but humorous. (Ernst Lubitsch and Howard Hawks are exceptions that prove the rule: Lubitsch's style is marked by visual restraint, while Hawks's screwball comedies possess fewer of his stylistic flourishes than his westerns or his gangster films.) Most esteemed comic directors, like Preston Sturges, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, are known as writers first and foremost: With the exception of the prison scenes in Sullivan's Travels (which are emphatically not comic), Sturges as a director comes across as unremarkable, neither better nor worse than a dozen craftsmen of his time. As for Allen and Brooks, both can be funny -- Brooks riotously so -- but the less said about their cinematic technique, the better.

I've elaborated on this side point about directors and mise-en-scene, simply because in most films -- comic or otherwise -- the music is considered an aural extension of the visual image. The image and the music are both ordinary, principally so that the performers have a freer hand to make us laugh. By and large, the most distinguished comic music for the cinema has been crafted for cartoon: Lisa Hirsch cites Carl Stalling, the musical mastermind behind Warner Brothers' Looney Tunes, while Teachout adds Scott Bradley's music for MGM's "Tom and Jerry" shorts. In some respects, Stalling and Bradley's approaches to cartoon music reflect the entertainment priorities of their respective studios: At the gritty, slightly lurid Warner Brothers environment, Stalling cobbled sly scores that quoted incessantly from classical and popular music, while Bradley at the conspicuously highbrow MGM composed original music in a dissonant, artsy, high-modernist mode that contrasted with the low-comedy cat-and-mouse hijinks. (Daniel Goldmark's book Tunes for Toons even finds twelve-tone compositions in Bradley's animated output.)

But the loud, manic, wall-to-wall scoring so common to short cartoons grows tiresome in a full-length feature -- and as composers who have tried to "Mickey-Mouse" a complete feature will testify, it's nearly impossible to do. Great scores to live-action film comedies are rare: I suppose one could cite Bernard Herrmann's The Trouble with Harry as an example, except that the film is not particularly effective as a comedy and Herrmann's score is partly to blame for it. His music never has to do the emotional heavy lifting that occurs in his scores to Vertigo or Psycho -- though that doesn't stop him from trying -- and even then, its musical virtuosity seems to detract from the film's attempts at humor.

Comedy is more difficult than drama: Drama depends on establishing a mood, while comedy depends on one specific audience reaction (either you laugh or you don't). Even a mediocre film composer can master the aural language of drama -- low, dry-bowed strings and woodwinds signal suspense, screeching violins indicate terror, a brass fanfare accompanies an important character's entrance, a lush full-orchestra theme tells us we're watching a love scene. The language of comedy, however, can elude even the most accomplished comedian, let alone a film score. Save for providing a few generally "light-hearted" musical cues (the presence of xylophones seems to indicate a development which we are meant to find amusing, probably because xylophones are a fixture of cartoons), composers seem unable to augment or amplify the humor in a scene. Given the obvious perils of innovation, and perhaps the subjective nature of humor itself, it hardly seems fair to expect composers to offer much more than that.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]