Sunday, December 29, 2013

Puppet Master 2: Requiem for a Soundtrack

Recently, I was sitting in the lounge at my work and my coworkers and I were having a discussion about music in movies.

Being the musical person I am, I've always considered music to be one of the key elements to film.  I cannot count the various musical themes that move me to tears or invigorate me or take me to a place in my childhood.  Themes from Gone with the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Lord of the Rings, To Kill a Mockingbird often make it into my regular playlists and I love soundtracks.  When the composer gets it right, it's magical.  Sometimes, when the movie is Harry Potter, it is genuinely magical, but I digress.  Justing thinking about it, I can't stop listing all the great soundtracks in my head and playing snippets of them over and over again.

However, one of my coworkers made a point that really got me thinking.  She said, "I hate it when music tells me how to feel".  And at first, all I could feel was hurt and mild outrage for all those wonderful, lyrical themes that I keep coming back to year after year, that I cherish in my movies.  How could she resent being touched profoundly by the beauty of Philip Glass's soundtrack for The Hours?  How could she ignore the wonder of the beautiful notes in Contact or the awe-inspiring, impressive theme for Jurassic Park?  I know these aren't great symphonies or anything, but they have a power and majesty all of their own.  One of the most satisfying things for me, in that mildly interesting kind of way, is the moment right at the end of each Star Wars movie when the music closing out the film transitions perfectly into the theme for the credits and the main theme for the movies.  When they changed the ending song to Return of the Jedi and it didn't do just that, I was in tears.  I know, it sounds silly, but there was a beautiful simplicity to that transition and it was important to me musically.

But the more I thought about it, the more I began to consider her opinion and notice it in the movies and television shows I watched.  Music is emotional coercion.  When you have music in a film, it is a reflection of the plot, the characters (oh how I love character themes), and the underlying emotions of the film/show.  Unfortunately, this doesn't actually mean that the emotions you are forming are true, unadulterated emotions and are a result of the actors and their performances.  In fact, your opinion is highly colored by the responses elicited by the chord progressions, keys, and instruments used in the soundtrack for the movie.

It's not like this is a secret, either.  Certainly ballets traditionally used music to convey ideas and emotions about the plot and characters they couldn't do with words, and opera marries the two concepts.  If you ever saw the old-school cartoon version of Peter and the Wolf, you'll know that they explain why they use all the instruments they do for the various characters (violins for the heroic Peter, a clarinet for the duck, a flute for the flitty little bird, etc. etc.) and it all seems a bit obvious.

So maybe, it's a willful duplicity.  If the moderately educated person is aware of the emotional impact certain types of musical instruments/melodies/chords/etc. can have on a person's emotions, does our continued inclusion of them into film just mean that we're really okay with having our emotions manipulated like that?  (And really, what isn't emotional manipulation, even if it isn't intended?  I'm not trying to discount the experiences of people who endure true emotional manipulation, but it is true that all kinds of innocuous, innocent seeming things are puppet-mastering our emotions.)  I mean, isn't that also the point of film?  To have our emotions manipulated?  To escape from or change our realities?  What's so wrong with a little extra help from one of the most primal, human things we can manage?  I suppose I'm just going to fall on the side of those saucy girls from the make-up addiction website I frequent: music in the movies, like make-up on your face, is meant to enhance what is already there -- the natural emotions and your natural beauty.  Like make-up inartfully applied with a trowel (you know what I'm talking about), heavy-handed and obvious music can ruin the experience.

Now, to relate this to book reading, I had a similar experience with a thriller I was reading.  I love reading thrillers -- they're exciting, there's usually a lot of death and plot twists -- and it's one of the pleasures I have been deriving in my off-work time recently.  Up until my last book, though, I was reading books all written by the same author pair (Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child).  I have found their books to be interesting, scientifically based (even if they then take the science into the realms of science fiction), and emotionally and intellectually satisfying.  I would particularly recommend Thunderhead.  This made me think I should expand to other authors, so I asked my mom who I should pick up next since she reads a ton of books and a lot of thrillers, to boot.

So I started with Matthew Reilly.  The first (and so far only) book I've picked up is called Temple.  It chronicles the adventures of a linguistics professor as he is dragged along with a group of military men to find an ancient Incan idol sculpted from a rare meteor made of "thyrium".  The material is the key ingredient in a world-ending superweapon, you know, thereby ending the world.  Half the book is dedicated to the story of how the idol ended up where it did from the eyes of a Spanish monk helping an Incan prince hide the idol from the prying eyes and hands of the conquistadors.

Sounds great, right?  Well, not so much.  With the author's help, he managed to nullify any of the actual thrills of the book.  When the author wanted to make sure that I indeed knew that this particular part of the book was exciting, he would italicize the most exciting part of the sentence and then throw on an exclamation point at the end.  For example, "William Race turned, and there, staring him in the face, was a giant, man-eating jaguar!"  When I wasn't outright laughing at this childishness, I was annoyed at the fact that the author was telling me entirely too bluntly how I should feel (or at least the intensity of my emotions).

Sort of like music in movies, eh?

And so my moment of introspection comes to an end, and I am off for a pleasant drink and a pleasanter read.  I am ever so desperately attempting to finish Bleak House by Tuesday night.  I know, it's been three years, three separate attempts at cracking this book, but now I'm 75 pages away from the end and this is the year I'm going to do it!  And I'm going to laugh in the face of naysayers and Charles Dickens haters as I do so, ringing in 2014 with a 150-year-old book.  And wonder which one I shall read next year.