I’ve been listening to two diametrically opposed songs about being “old fashioned,” so I have thought I would share these two songs and ask people which one they most identify with? You can even say both or none!
“I’m Old Fashioned” was composed by Jerome Kern, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer for the movie You Were Never Lovelier, starring Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth. Rita Hayworth’s character sings the song, but her voice was dubbed by Nan Wynn. The song is then followed by a lovely, romantic dance between Astaire and Hayworth. Simply gorgeous.
I absolutely cannot resist this next song. “Just an Old Fashioned Girl” was written by Marve A. Fisher and is most associated with Eartha Kitt. Younger generations might know her for providing the voice of Yzma in The Emperor’s New Groove, She also played Catwoman in the TV series Batman in 1967. This song is utterly, wickedly delightful.
So, which kind of an “old fashioned” person are you? I confess that I probably am more old fashioned in the Jerome Kern/Johnny Mercer fashion, but secretly wish to be old fashioned like Eartha Kitt.
King Kong (1933) – One of the first films to utilize sound effects to create a fantasy world, as well as the movie soundtrack as we know it today
Have you ever seen that movie where the musical score seems to be carrying the entire emotional burden of the film? That scene where a character is starring off into the distance while the music does the actual emoting? Or even that scene where the music feels superfluous?
I used to consider music an integral part of the emotional make-up of a film, but I’ve begun to realize that cinema offers many options when it comes to creating an emotional, aural, and visual landscape.
Yasujiro Ozu is acknowledged as one of the greatest directors of cinema, but he has a very unique approach to the use of music. The music in his films often does not provide any obvious emotional cues for the audience. There is a steadiness, sometimes even a cheerfulness, a serenity to the music he employs, even during dramatic situations. It contributes to the sense overall in his films that life goes on and that we must all move on, no matter what happens, but it also leaves the emotional cues to come from the actors, the story itself, and the framing.
Even when Ozu made silent films, he said that he preferred that the music have no connection with the plot itself. No use of music to highlight a tense moment, a romantic moment, to cue the audience on how they should feel. It all must come from within the screen itself.
Alfred Hitchcock, on the other hand, seems to have been quite comfortable with fairly dramatic, romantic, and tense music and Hitchcock films have produced some of the most memorable movie soundtracks we have today: Psycho, Marnie, North By Northwest, Vertigo. But he also experimented with an electronic score in The Birds, which employed simulated sound effects, such as the shrieks of birds. I recently watched Rear WIndow and realized that the film almost exclusively employs diegetic music, music and sound coming from the apartment building complex’s different rooms. There is a scene in the 1956 The Man who Knew Too Much, where Jimmy Stewart believes himself to be followed and hears footsteps behind him. It is the footsteps, not music, that creates the tension.
I think the point is that Hitchcock used music to complement his films, never to overshadow. The emotion is already inherent in his films, augmented with sound, even without the musical scores, but the music makes those images all that more potent and memorable.
In 2018, I discovered two French directors and comedians, Pierre Etaix and Jacques Tati. They made their films in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. Tati began in mime, Etaix worked with Tati, before going out on his own. They are very different comedians, but their films are rooted in the visual comedy of the silent era and they also make superb use of sound effects.
Beginning at around 3:05 into the video, there is a discussion of Tati’s use of sound to build a gag. But Pierre Etaix also uses exaggerated sound effects of common objects around him to hilarious effect. It creates an internal rhythm to the comedy, rhythm apart from music, that makes one aware of the rhythm of sounds all around us. For me, in my life, it might be the rhythm of keys on a keyboard, footsteps, a clock, the whistling of a water pot, the cycles of a washer machine, rustlings created when one moves in a chair, running water, birds singing, rain falling, wind blowing, cars driving by, even the sound of my cat stretching or of her little paw pads sinking into the carpet as she walks.
Another director who makes notable use of sound is Andrei Tarkovsky. He singles out certain sounds and heightens them to create emotion (a discussion begins at 4:40 into the video below).
Interestingly, pre-code cinema (cinema made between 1929-1933) almost never employs a musical score. It was thought, when sound films were first made, that audiences would not be able to accept the sudden intrusion of music with no discernible source. The result is that nearly the only music one hears in a pre-code film is diegetic music, music from a visible source within the screen, like a radio, record player, singer, or band. Early sound films are not noted for their music, then, but their talking and the sound effects.
I actually think this contributes to a pre-code film’s energy and vitality. Think of the scene where James Cagney stands in the rain before going into a building to shoot up some gangsters in The Public Enemy. We hear the sound of the rain, of the car breaking to a stop, the sound of voices (and actors like Cagney or William Powell often speak in a rabid patter during these early years that has a rhythm and tone all its own). One almost has the feeling one could stick one’s hand into the frame and it would come out wet.
For me, the absence of music and the judicious use of sound effects gives a film a more tactile sense. Music, I think, can flatten the world, create a kind of distance between the audience and the image that is seen, because of the very unreality of non-diegetic music. This is why I think musical scores work so well for fantasy. Think of Lord of the Ring or Star Wars (a space opera, though I always appreciate the aural world created in those films: lightsabers, TIE fighters, blasters, Darth Vader’s breathing).
It does not seem like an accident that the first movie to make use of a musical score in much the same way movies do today should be the 1933 King Kong, a fantasy/adventure/romance (he film was also notable for its use of sound effects to create the unique roar of Kong or the other dinosaurs). Or think of Gone With the Wind, a lush romance that bears little resemblance to reality.
What ultimately prompted these thoughts was watching Dunkirk, which had a score so overwhelming that it irritated me and seemed to put the audience at a remove from the battle taking place before us. It submerged all the sounds of the engines of planes, gunfire, shouts of men, the water and waves and caused a certain muddiness and overwhelming of the senses.
Though music can also be used to turn carnage into elegy, as Mel Gibson did in the film Hacksaw Ridge. It was a movie that I quickly realized I should not eat while watching, but I was also astonished at how Gibson could portray scenes of such wretched human suffering and overlay it with music, so that the scene then became an elegy to the suffering of the men. But it was achieved by using music to put a slight distance between the audience and the suffering of the men so that the audience could step out of their initial gut horror and think about the nature of their suffering. It was a very curious affect.
I have been extremely curious to know what other people think on this topic? Are there scores your love, scores that drive you up the wall, favorite sound effects from movies?
It has been some time since my last post – over six months. In that time, I have read many good books, watched many excellent films, and developed a new passion for Korean drama. I have not, however, been able to write about any of that, but I want to correct that this year.
I have been considering whether or not to include the occasional review of Korean dramas (called Kdramas) on this blog. They are often 16 episode series, which tell a continuous story. They can be thrillers or romances or comedies or fantasies…though Kdramas often seem very comfortable including random, unexplained fantasy elements in their stories: the ability to read someone’s mind, time travel, made-up medical syndromes. My own persona favorite Korean drama is the 2018 series called Call Me Mother, a low-level thriller that is really a drama about motherhood in all its manifestations.
But since Korean dramas do not exactly fit in with the general theme of my blog, I am hesitating about including any reviews. However, I might try one or two reviews, just to see how things go.
I have also been continuing with my passion for Japanese Cinema. I am thinking of writing a piece on some of the great Japanese directors of the 1950s: Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse.
Another lovely discovery has been the two French film comedians and directors: Jacques Tati and Pierre Etaix. They made films during the ’50’s, ’60’s, and ’70’s, but are heavily influenced by silent comedy, though they also make inspired and hilarious use of sound.
I would like to develop a post about my growing (highly amateur) appreciation of cinema as an art form worthy of the same respect as poetry, architecture, opera, drama, or any other recognized art. I would also like to air out a theory about the use of music in a film. I’m beginning to get very opinionated about that, actually. Maybe that will be my next post! I will include Tati, Etaix, the film Dunkirk, Lord of the Rings, Pre-code cinema, Ozu and silent movies.
Yasujiro Ozu – I cannot admire his films too much!
I’ve been reading a lot of British literature from the Victorian era, as well. I would like to perhaps write some reviews on some of the books I have read (and am reading). I am currently also reading Les Miserables, which I have decided is part history, part journalism, and part fictional story. Victor Hugo seems to have never met a literary aside that he didn’t like or want to share. He is positively brimming with opinions and things he wants to share with his reader. He makes Charles Dickens’ look positively restrained! But there is no denying the power of his story or his writing (when he isn’t telling the reader about the battle of Waterloo; it takes him about sixty pages just to get back to the story). But his story is well-nigh un-killable. It even survives bad adaptations (for a really good adaptation, try the 1934 French version of Les Miserables, directed by Raymond Bernard).
Sir Walter Scott has also been on my radar, mostly because he was so vastly influential on the Victorians (most notably the Brontë sisters). His poetry is mentioned in Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. There are a small group of dedicated fans who maintain that his literature is far more artful than is generally credited and I am willing to give him a try, focusing on his novels set in Scotland, rather than his most popular medieval work, Ivanhoe.
I hope everyone else is doing well. I would love to hear what everyone is reading, watching, thinking, music they are listening to. It should be a good year of movies, music, and books! I look forward to it.