This installment of FMD looks (actually ‘winks’) at the interplay of music and film in that wonderful post Vietnam era shift in cinema – the soundtrack. Movies have always looked to music to give the images depth, pathos, and at certain moments something of the Divine. This is often found in the musical score – an instrumental piece written to elicit the emotive overture of the filmic narrative. In contrast to the score, soundtracks draw from individual artists who provide iconic moments – short, dense tableaus that act as musical counterpoint and compliment to the film’s storyline. It was the megablast of the soundtrack to “Saturday Night Fever” in 1977 that made soundtracks not merely emotional signposts for narrative, but a financial boon for the industry. Most soundtracks are pretty forgetable and down right awful. But occasionally, an artist embraces the directorial vision of a film and creates something so subtle and sublime that to hear the song not only transports us back to the visual narrative – but links our lives to the pathos and joy in a wonderous way.
As a medium we merely “view”, film becomes something we often “understand” without struggling to improve our understanding. For example, the photographic image stands in contrast to a text which, with a single word, can shift from representation to reflection. We look at a photo and recall its source – its very ‘stillness’ seems to allow and encourage us to make a reference – e.g. Who is this in the picture? When was it taken? Where was that building in the background? It is this which led cultural theorist Roland Barthes to call the photographic image pure contingency – that is, the photograph is always something that is representational and therefore contingent on something ‘other’ for meaning to arise. In contrast, more so than other arts, film offers an immediate and fully contextualised presence to the world – it is self-referential and makes its own reality. Ironically, it is precisely because, as James Monaco notes, films “so very clearly mimic reality that we apprehend them much more easily than we comprehend them.” Add music to the mix and you have a full experience that allows the viewer/listener to apprehend a moment of meaning with all senses engaged – meaning without mediation. No wonder we love the movies, eh?
One new director/writer on the scene who uses music to whisper rather than shout the core message of his film is Charlie Kaufman. Writer of such films as Being John Malkovitch, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
“I like to live in the confusion,” says the writer of his preference for chaos over concrete. “When you complicate things, that’s when things are more interesting.” Always an avid reader, though loath to list influences lest his work be compared to theirs, among those whose work Charlie enjoys are authors ranging from Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Stanislaw Lem, Philip K. Dick and Stephen Dixon to Shirley Jackson and Patricia Highsmith, who both specialise in “the queasy, really subtle sh*t that happens between characters; it can seem like nothing’s happening, but it’s horrible just the same.” One of the things I love about Charlie Kaufman is his attempt to model his scripts and film projects on the work of Flannery O’Connor, who believed that Southern writers aptly render “the grotesque” because they can still recognize what it is. Reading O’Connor made Kaufman fear “that I wouldn’t have a voice because I didn’t seem to come from anywhere — I was jealous of other parts of America.” Part of Kaufman’s own development came from recognizing the “weirdness” within his purview. Some of his favourite films include What Happened Was… (Tom Noonan), Naked (Mike Leigh), Safe (Todd Haynes), Ladybird Ladybird (Ken Loach), Eraserhead (David Lynch) and “most of the Coen Brothers and David Lynch things.”
It makes sense that someone as Non sequitur as Charlie Kaufman would find the ideal soundtrack partner in Beck. One of the most inventive and eclectic figures to emerge from the ’90s alternative revolution, Beck is the epitome of postmodern chic in an era obsessed with junk culture. Drawing upon a kaleidoscope of influences — pop, folk, psychedelia, hip-hop, country, blues, R&B, funk, indie rock, noise rock, experimental rock, jazz, lounge, Brazilian music — Beck has created a body of work that was wildly unpredictable, vibrantly messy, and bursting with ideas. He is unquestionably a product of the media age – what market-driven folks call “Generation M” (M= [Me]dia) — and a true “recombinantist” (see earlier post on “recombinant theology” on TheologyKungfu.com) whose concoctions were pasted together from bits of the past and present, in ways that could only occur to an overexposed pop-culture junkie. Beck may seem like a chaotic artist with “Loser” and “Where its at” being extreme mash-ups of random sources, but is his signature musical voice is forged in characters in this post-essentialist age that are rootless, sprawling in diversity, and find [akin to Neo] a self determination through the acknowledgement that the self has no boundaries or conventions due to its Imago Dei forged depth.
One song that seems to capture the simplicity of Beck’s music is “Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime” that frames the musical signature of Kaufman’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”
“change your heart/look around you… change your heart/it will astound you… I need your lovin’/ like I need the sunshine/ Everybody’s got to learn sometime…” is the lyric that repeats throughout the images that flash on the screen. As a movie that plays with the notion of how identity is formed due to how our memories function (can we love if we can’t remember what we are…or for that matter whose we are?) The simplicity of this repeated lyric is contemplative and sacramental – drawing the viewer of the film to ‘remember’ this line, to repeat it is to bring it into truth. The repeated simplicity of the track coupled with the non-linear nature of Kaufman’s (literal) stream of consciousness narrative brings a wonderful reminder, as Tolkien stated so well, that not all those who wander are lost.