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Beat it

June 22, 2015

Here are a few thoughts prompted by a chapter from Lea Jacobs’ book, Film Rhythm and Sound, entitled ‘Mickey Mousing Reconsidered’.

‘Mickey Mousing’ refers to the more obvious ways that music interacts with the moving image, either ‘onomatopoeically or by coinciding physical action with musical tempo. It is a phrase that is often used pejoratively when applied to live action narrative film, usually because it too closely mirrors what is happening on screen and is thus deemed redundant. In animation, in which the term has its obvious roots, it is used frequently, but then animation is often seen as the poor relation to its live action counterpart.

The close relationship between narrative and purely musical forms has its roots in late Romantic music, to which film music owes such a debt, notably in programme music. Richard Strauss, Liszt and others championed the Tone Poem, this being an orchestral work which, rather than following the standard symphonic form, used narratives to shape and structure the music. Richard Strauss’s Don Juan, for example, opens with the hero’s theme, and features, amongst others, a love theme, a heroine’s theme, a carnival, and a stabbing trumpet cue that described the hero’s death. Very ‘film music’, then, in its use of leitmotifs and the scoring for an enhanced symphonic orchestra. Indeed, the film composers of the so-called Golden Era – Korngold, Waxman, Rosza, Steiner, Tiomkin – were clearly influenced by Strauss and others from the late-Romantic tradition (Strauss was Steiner’s godfather, and there were other interactions between Strauss and the younger generation). And, if one chose, one could pursue the striking similarities between the hero’s themes in film music from Steiner to Williams, and find clear antecedents in the Tone Poems of the late C19th. But there are more overt uses of orchestration to mimic narrative events such as in Strauss’s Don Quixote, another tone poem, where the composer instructs the brass to flutter-tongue to approximate bleating sheep. Such effects are often condemned for reducing music’s higher aspirations to abstraction by anchoring it firmly in the literal. What, after all, can be cheaper than asking a musician to imitate an animal? It’s part of the reason, indeed, why film music (and to some degree the Tone Poem) is so often regarded as the inferior cousin of classical music, which isn’t yoked to anything as banal as a story.

three little pigsGenerally, live action narrative film music avoids aping the image with onomatopoeic effects. And that applies too to rhythm, the focus of Jacobs’ book. Whereas the tempo of music in live action narrative film is determined by the mood of the scene and further refined by scene length, musical tempo and character movement are inextricably linked in early animation. The temporal unit of the second, which is subdivided into 24 frames (this the standardised speed of projectors after the introduction of sound) offers a happy coincidence of the most common musical meters of 3 and 4. 24, after all, is divisible by both, not forgetting 2 and 6, of course. Jacobs shows how virtually all physical movement in the frame was subject to a form of musical overdetermination: action is bound to musical metre. Thus cartoon characters, to use the language of the animators, ‘walk on 12’s’, meaning that their footfalls occur twice a second. All of this suggests a very predictable form of movement, though the system wasn’t quite as rigid as that might suggest, for it was generally a team of composer and designer who worked on the process side by side. But what is undeniably true, even if the music ultimately serves the narrative (as it does in live-action film), is that the rhythm of the music plays a far greater regulative role in animation.

Jacobs’ brief history describes the move away from a very tight subordination of action to the musical beat and towards a more fluid, contrapuntal system. Already, though, within the earliest cartoons one could discover a more complex alternation of bar lengths. That a musical sequence could occasionally throw in an extra beat to accommodate the action comes as something of a surprise to Jacobs, and to animators of the time, but it’s something that still regularly happens in film music today, and even more supposedly regulated musical forms like the popular song. (I’m thinking here of Bacharach who often adds extra half beats and odd bar lengths, all of which sound remarkably consistent, an effect undoubtedly aided by the lush orchestrations, careful phrasings and meticulous production).

The particular nature of movement in cartoons is undoubtedly the reason for the very clear relationship between the musical pulse and character action, and ultimately the early pioneers realised that a greater subtlety was required. Animation, after all, involves a very stylised form of movement – clipped and abrupt, measured and abbreviated in a way that human action isn’t. (Jacobs’ account of Disney’s 1932 Santa’s Workshop shows how this applies to multiple figures in sequences.) One of the notable advances in recent years of CGI (an extension of animation) is using human and animal movement as the template for computer-generated figures, a process which produces a notably more naturalistic and metrically chaotic articulation of movement. Andy Serkis as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is probably the best known example. By placing reflective pads on joints and limbs and then tracking the movement in what is known as ‘performance capture’ a movement template allowed the animators to overlay an imaginary figure.

indexLive action is considerably more forgiving of musical metre than animation. When a person walks down the street, their arms and legs do not move together in perfect time unless they’re marching. And when they do, such as“>the opening scenes of Saturday Night Fever when John Travolta struts along the a Brooklyn street, swinging a can of paint to ‘Staying Alive’ by The Bee Gees (“Well you can tell by the way I use my walk, I’m a woman’s man: no time to talk”) it is more of a dance than a walk. (Famously, Travolta insisted that the original footage, with a stand-in, be re-shot as “I don’t walk like that”). And note that the footfalls in that example are not in time with the disco beat, though they seem to be.

I once showed a group of students some students the opening scene of The Ipcress File. The composer is John Barry and the scene shows Michael Caine carefully preparing his breakfast. When I asked my students for their thoughts I anticipated comments either about impossibly exotic routine for the early 1960s of grinding coffee beans, placing them in a cafetierre and pouring boiling water over them, or perhaps something about the cimbalom, which acts as an eerie signifier of Eastern Europe. One of them surprised me by saying that all of Caine’s movements are matched rhythmically by the music. We watched it again and, though it was easy to see where that impression came from, it wasn’t true. It suggests, though, that we unconsciously align physical movement with musical pulse, that the spectator desires and, if necessary, creates a coincidence of sound and image. It’s no less true in real life. How many times have you found yourself walking along in an airport, say, your footsteps matching exactly (and annoyingly) with some background music? And the effect is put to somewhat better use in a recent app that provides a playlist based on your running cadence.

When developing a soundtrack of early C15th music to ‘fit’ Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc I’ve often been struck at how often the relative randomness of the proscribed metre has fitted exactly to the image. I say ‘exactly’, though even here there is more leeway than might at first be expected. To take a specific example, consider three different musical approaches to the same scene. It occurs about two-thirds of the way through the movie and describes the moment when Jeanne realises that she has been condemned to death, even though she is innocent. Intercut with close-ups of Joan are the now-sympathetic faces of her tormentors, one of whom is crying. The physical moment that interests me is the slow close of Joan’s eyes, somewhere between falling asleep and blinking. It lasts almost a second, in distinct contrast to the rapid blinking of the priest in the previous shot, and is the more notable for the fact that we don’t see Falconetti blink at all.

In the Eureka Entertainment Blu-Ray edition there’s . It consists of single chords and a gentle dotted rhythm, and the moment that Joan closes her eyes coincides with a suspended chord. When assembling a promotional video I took a recording and attached it to the same sequence. In our version, the same moment coincides with the final syllable of ‘desplaisance (‘displeasure), which is also the final word of the first line of the first stanza and an obvious ‘resting point’ in the music. For a lecture I gave on the project I contrasted the essentially empathic use of the Libert chanson with a more aggressive piece of early C15th music, , the purpose being to show how music could inflect a reading of the film and effectively anchor the meaning of a sequence. My argument was that it was possible, despite Dreyer’s depiction of Joan’s suffering, to express anger with music and invite that (valid) emotional response in the spectator. Whether or not you buy that reading is irrelevant here; what’s of interest is that the same specific moment here coincides with the final syllable of the word ‘Sanctus’ (Holy) and falls here on a cadence.

The word I’ve used throughout these three examples is ‘coincides’ for although I’ve aligned music and image I haven’t done so with the care and attention that the results would suggest. Moreover, if you examine the sequences more carefully you’ll see that they are not perfectly synched at all. The languorous eyelids allow great perceptual leeway which, together with the musical and syntactic logic of the accompaniment, creates a strong impression of simultaneity.

The tendency of animation, as Jacobs points out, is towards exact synchronisation of action and music, though very soon animators and musicians began to develop more varied forms of organisation, liberating both animators and composers and enriching the film text. But such an interest in musical rhythm manifest in the various chapters of Jacobs’ fascinating book provokes an interesting theory: there are plenty of examples of commentators talking about the warmth that music adds to the otherwise cold, silent screen, but few of them talk about a parallel desire for rhythm. And if the observations of the student who insisted on the simultaneity of action and music in the opening of The Ipcress File, and the three instances of coincidence in the examples from La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc suggest anything then it’s that there is an unconscious desire for rhythmic interaction and alignment that explains the continuing fascination with the interaction of film and music. It also means that the simple act of placing music to a silent movie already puts one on the side of the spectator, furnishing them with something they want, and perhaps need.

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