The End of Music’s Difference

07Jan08

/1/ – Sounds across the stage

Over time the sound track has wormed its way deeper into the medium of cinema. Is it possible that this kind of narratological infection is parallel to the increasing reflexivity of music itself? Sound was first introduced to film at the turn of the century but was not a common occurrence until the 1920s. While the technique was quick to catch on in America it was still met with skepticism elsewhere – there was belief that it would undermine the uniqueness of cinema as a form of entertainment and as a form of art. The worry is not completely unfounded since, as Zizek points out, that while music covers over the threatening silence of the universe, it is also a danger – in that it sentimentalizes and electrifies.

The primary concern was not music into film but that of speech, of the concept of the talking actor. The threat manifested itself in practical terms such as in the first British talkie Blackmail, directed by a young Hitchcock, where the star Anny Ondra had too thick of an accent to be understood when the film, originally shot silently, was redone with sound.

So it is important to remember that we are dealing with two separate yet densely blended entities – the function of the voice in cinema and the function of music. Music was placed over film, sometimes even from a live source, from the orchestra pit for instance, and now has become included to the point of narrative infection.

There is a fairly recent event in film, where movies have become highly musical – seemingly when young directors are behind the camera. Examples of this are Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, Marie Antionette, Wes Anderson’s numerous films, the recent film Juno directed by Jason Reitman (Thank You For Smoking) and written by professional blogger Diablo Cody. What is the connection between the birth of the cinematic voice and musics impregnation of cinema?

/2/ – Move, move move

The birth of the sound film, the talkie, had its ceremonious unveiling at the 1900 Paris Exposition. The tension of film itself is magnified in the architecture of the fair’s layout – the contrast between the Eiffel tower and the human zoos surrounding it. Art nouveau, the arrest of organic growth in the deadness of architecture, also was abound at the fair – the first metros with their elegant gates opened for the first time. Other inventions debuting at the fair speak to a kind of ‘movement to nowhere’ – the escalator and the panoramic theater – both mock the idea of transit purposefully or not.

Furthermore Art Noveau’s focus on style (as an incredibly stylistic style, if such a thing can be said) fertilizes the ever more popular idea that style has become the new content. In Paul Virilio’s Open Sky, he speaks of the horizontal over the vertical, and the valorization of time over space. At the turn of the century the world was spatially compacted view invention whereas in the current epoch the compacting of space is the limit of invention.

The digital age is one of translation and combination and not one of true technological novelty – note that novelty here is not about the quaint fascination regarding certain objects but an absolute newness, a radical moment of newness. Here it might be useful to see newness in terms of Badiou and Zizek. For Zizek novelty is birthed from the void – in step with the strangeness of quantum physics he argues that reality is a kind of unstable nothingness from which reality emerges.

Looking at Badiou, novelty is more about a kind of universalism, it is about creating a space for a new name to emerge, a new unity. Both of these aspects are simulated in the music video cinematic movement – it is a celebration of the nothingness of existence, the pre-real deadness and the lack of a new universality which is, essentially, a universality of denying the possibility of new realities, new universalities.

/3/ – Stations of media

To be almost vulgar in our abuse of diction – what of the track, that is the sound track and also, at the same time, the station of radio station. Early film was obsessed with capturing movement and to anyone who understands the basic function of film – we know that the movement isn’t actually portrayed but what is shows is a series of frozen images that when placed alongside each other effectively mimic movement.

Stations of life, is the kind of lurching movement of development and indeed, the youth of such directors, is apparent in their subjects battles with adulthood. Why is it that the heavily musical film is one of coming to age – take for instance Garden State or its predecessor The Graduate. Music becomes the easiest way of marking movement was has become too quick and easy, at least technologically, but perhaps less so psychologically. Music allows for the narration of the most banal.

Here one should be careful to contrast the heavy use of music versus the musical. The strange bridge between the MTV style film and the classic musical could be The Umbrellas of Cherbourg which I have written on before. The film is throughly musical – there are no musical numbers- instead the film is throughly musical – every line of dialog is sung. But why this differs is that the film does not aggrandize – it highlights the inability of romance or the valorized view musicals tend to have.

Here the subway or train station and the radio station (internet radio now I suppose) come together. The pause of travel and the pause in listening become the same – the choice becomes what and not how, the how has been answered for us via the ease of technology, of the depth of our mechanical and electronic infrastructures.

One scene of Umbrellas which speaks to its refusal of transit as ‘howness.’ When the male lead leaves for Algeria, he walks alongside his love wearing a blue shirt hidden under his coat while she clutches a blue handkerchief to her chest. The visual balance of their emotional pain cuts through the maudlin music which fills the scene. The very lack of words is what drives the scene – no attempt is made to narratize the departure of [name].

The concern of music becoming noise should not be a stylistic concern but one of integration – of quotidian music. The over-integration of music lends itself to the contemporary obsession with a futurism.

/4/ – No Future(ism)

Juno is a film that tarries oddly with what could be discussed as teenage heternormativity or as reproductive futurism a la Lee Edelman’s text No Future. Futurism, as the name suggests, has to do with concern with less with the future as an aesthetic and more as a worry of the continuance of heteronormative child bearing. Via Lacan, Edelman argues that queers enact a sinthomsexuality, that instead of placating to the demands of heternormativity (by way of gay marriage, adoption et cetera) queers should embody the radicalness of being ‘against the children’ of giving life to the death drive. While not simply embodying a vaguely punk rock cry of ‘no future,’ queer folk suggest a possibly different present instead of fighting for a rosy future of abstract tolerance, of an impossible ‘love thy neighbor’ sort of reality.

Juno is about a teen pregnancy which progresses half predictably – Juno becomes pregnant having had sex with a boy she eventually realizes she is in love with. Juno decides to give the baby up for adoption, having ran in a panic from a less than stellar abortion clinic, to a ‘nice young couple.’ What sets the film apartment apart from similar cinematic paths is that the comedy comes from Juno not taking her ‘condition’ seriously and the drama comes from her disruption of the adoptive parents lives. The absence, or least deferral of seriousness is interrupted when the adoptive father sees Juno as the way out of a loveless marriage, as a possible way for him to be young again, to try and be a musician.

Mark, who once had aspirations of being a rock musician, has had to settle for writing jingles to support his eventual family. While the jingle represents an even ‘more quotidian’ use of music, due to complete commodification, Mark’s character has to be taken out of the movie because, through indirect reflection, points out the own loss of meaning central to the film which is the impetus for its comedy. In other words, Mark’s clumsily attempt at courting Juno embodies Juno’s attitude towards the entire universe – one not of reckless abandon but cool headed abandon.

/5/ – The meta musical?

Disney’s Enchanted aims to parody the magical/romantic artifice on which it sits in the animated world and by clumsily transmuting it to the real world. While the film is critical of the various disney tropes, it is more harsh on the kind of every day cynicism of the ‘real world’ found in the offices of the male love interest of the story. In criticizing this negativity of the real world the film therefore reasserts its ‘Disneyness’ by clinging desperately to the fantasy of it all. Dejan, and others have already pointed this out in various ways. What in terms of music then, does the film do that is narratologically sinister, how is it a sort of inverse of Umbrellas?

While Umbrellas is a musical that is a sort of tragedy (because it fails to ascertain the place of proper tragedy that musicals often portray), Enchanted attempts to sabotage the cheesy posturing of the musical by over eagerly embracing it. Here the loss of serious, discussed above regarding Juno, comes back to the spotlight. The message becomes that magic exists but we can only arrive at such a conclusion by passing through the fire of cynicism and ending up in a virtually fetishistic relationship with romance – romance becomes placed in a magical realm (Disney) yet it’s fantastical existence is more real then the reality that cynicists would claim.

I am not hereby agreeing with the cynical position, especially in relation to love, that true love or, to put it into more pragmatic terms, that long term relationships are impossible, I am stating that Enchanted maintains that an intense fantasy construction is the only possible way of maintaining belief in true love. The alternative to both this and the cynical point of view, is that true love does exist but it is not a sort of inhabited vision, etheral and magical, but that it is on the verge of the political, that it is, as Badiou says, a long march.

The over integration of music aims to prop up not reality with fantasy but fantasy with reality – by galvanizing the most banal events in ‘mtvesque’ montages in order to perpetuate the imaginary atmosphere of every day life.

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3 Responses to “The End of Music’s Difference”

  1. 1 parodycenter

    I am stating that Enchanted maintains that an intense fantasy construction is the only possible way of maintaining belief in true love.

    I can just imagine a cartoon-cum-live action fantasy starring dr. Zizek and his 50 years younger Brazilian syren acting as if she married him for the Happily Ever After! THE ENCHANTED DR ZIZEK I would call it!

  2. 2 parodycenter

    What’s further of interest in the film is how Romance gets interpreted in the burgeois key (Cinderella looks like Nicole Kidman) – a strictly burgeois psychosis which was parodied well in Kidman’s own BIRTH (Jonathan Glazer, 2004), written by Bunuel’s ex-scribe Milo Addica.

    I tend to think that these compensation fantasies appear only as a result of guilt; one which however the burgeoisie can’t really escape.

    But this could have been interesting in an evil sort of way if the movie hadn’t been made on TV quality – the animation, the sets and the actors all look like third-rate soap material, indicating the studio’s total lack of inspiration.

  3. In case you haven’t already come across it:
    Chion’s ‘The Voice in Cinema’


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