Archive for May, 2010

Cinematic Jazz: Jazz Über Alle Anderen Musik des Kinos

May 13, 2010

Compare the carefully placed and well-timed Jazz of George Gershwin in Woody Allen’s Manhattan to the repeated-to-the-point-of-tiresome use of “California Dreamin’” in Wong Kar Wai’s The Chungking Express. Though the two songs clearly have their differences in genre, both serve similar purposes: to narrate the characters’ feelings, to charm into sympathy, or to try to appeal to the intellect and the emotions of the audience. All films that have employed previously existing music in any way share these common purposes. When a film is scored with original music, the music is completely fitted to the film and subtle; it has not yet had the chance to erode into popular culture. But when a film adopts an existing well-known song, the film can only fit the song so much before its use can be seen as outlandish. What’s left are the question and the spectrum that the answer falls upon: Did the auteur use the existing music effectively?
Different musical genres transmit different emotions and thoughts, which in turn, provide flexibility for all film genres and their specific situations where music is audible. Thus, music in films have become an archetype; recurrent in recurring situations. Yet, a single genre outshines others through its intellectual and pathological versatility. Enter jazz: free-thinking but structured, raw sophistication. An absolutely beautiful, universal language, through which the orators flex their muscles in harmony, prowess and precision. Wynton Marsalis, prodigy trumpeter and Pulitzer Prize winning author describes jazz perfectly, “Jazz is more than the best expression there is of American culture; it is the most democratic of arts” (Fiero, 108). The use of jazz in films is a versatile well-made choice that appeals both to the emotion and to the intellect. Compared to other musical genres employed in films, jazz enhances filmic space and time, yet leaves enough neutrality for mise-en-scene to unfold without being obstructed.

Several different subgenres of Rock & Roll exist, but they are often type-casted into the same usage: the empowering moment. The destruction of large, incorporated buildings signifies Project Mayhem’s goal as accomplished, but simultaneously the defeat of its leader, Tyler Durden. The haunting “Where is my Mind?” by Pixies plays over the triumphant ending of Fight Club, leaving the mood victorious yet with a feeling of loss; bittersweet. The song fits well as it ties into Fight Club’s central theme of insanity. The rhythms and instruments of Rock & Roll differentiate it from other music genres. It is faster, simpler and steadier. A parallel can be drawn to the beating heart, which also can pick up tempo while staying rhythmic. When the heart beats faster, the body gets excited and mental activity increases. Rock & Roll music is used in films to change the pace the heart and to build emotion by engaging the change in heartbeat. In Quentin Tarantino’s latest film Inglourious Basterds, the character Shosanna sits on windowsill and applies her makeup while contemplating for the night ahead. This elaborated moment is accompanied with the entire length of “Theme from Cat People” by David Bowie. The song emphasizes the moment of the quiet before the storm, draws many parallels between its lyrics and the world of the film, and expresses the emotions and intentions of the character so that the actor does not have to, while still conveying the characters’ thoughts and feelings. Though they may be used well, the songs are prominent to pop culture: Pixies’ album Surfer Rosa which featured “Where is My Mind” peaked at number 2 on the UK Indie Chart and “Theme from Cat People” reached #26 in the United Kingdom, #67 in the United States, and #1 in Norway, Sweden and New Zealand. Such popular songs distract from the film by redirecting thought to memories and recognition of the popular song used.
Popular Rock & Roll features very structured songwriting, providing a sense of entrapment and dictatorship. Improvisation defines itself as a criterion of jazz music. “In simple terms, improvisation is extemporaneous musical composition” (King, 6), which provides democracy and importance to the players. Rather than a rehearsed speech, jazz is like speaking a language that imitates the common psychological process of contributing to a conversation, for it is a “common, shared, body of musical ideas and expressions that have evolved throughout the years” (King, 7). While it does create a medium to speak through, the language does not hinder the options and the directions one can take as an improviser. “The basic language and its vocabulary are only the starting point for an improviser’s imagination. Homer and Shakespeare and Dostoevsky weren’t limited by their languages. They took hold of the language they had been taught and created something unique and personal” (King, 11). The possibilities of jazz’s expression remain endless.

Jazz’s spontaneous organization is very flexible to change, bend, or mold – a trait of an ideal democracy. During the conversation (melody, harmony and rhythm) of instruments in jazz, the language of the soul is spoken and without the dilution of words or ideas but with merely the implications and suggestions. This stimulates and provides space for verbal conversation but does not regulate or compete with it, ideal for conversations in films, where dialogue should be audible without being distracted or interrupted by music that calls too much attention to itself, provide understanding of the story, build or break sympathies with characters, or inform the audience.
Imagine any scene in a film where two people converse over nondiegetic music. When the two characters carry the dialogue between each other, the non-speaking character (but not always the actor) is constantly improvising and formulating a responding answer to the speech of the one speaking. Jazz mimics this process, imitating the exchange of words in a conversation, words that are merely branches of the tree of ideas that they form. “The way a typical jazz performance unfolds is a lot like the way a conversation progresses. Someone chooses a subject to discuss and takes the lead in expressing ideas and thoughts about the subject. She is soloing…Her fellow conversationalists comment intermittently with ideas and thoughts that the speaker has inspired, and that will, in turn, inspire her” (King, 12).

Though Tarantino and Fincher did well in their choices, Woody Allen’s Annie Hall utilizes “Seems Like Old Times” much more profoundly than Tarantino did with “Theme from Cat People”. Tarantino’s song only fulfills a molecular moment in a subplot, whereas Allen’s song serves as a finish line, one crossed in the first lap of Annie’s character arc and crossed again to conclude the growth. Both sets of lyrics tie into the story well, but “Seems Like Old Times” succeeds in doing so with a new meaning each time around. The song ends with the word “you”, which addresses not only Alvy Singer but the audience as well. The “temporary revelation of genuine love [is then] disclosed, only to be repudiated through art. Thus the song returns Alvy and the audience to the reality principle, to the theater, to the incoherence of life” (Morris, 56).

Along with superfluous rambling about shallow desires, the ascent of the rapper from the ghetto to stardom is a common staple of modern “gangsta” rap music. Their degenerate behaviors are carried over and continued even after their admittance into aristocracy. (Yes, this may be generalization, but it is carefully used here and throughout this paragraph with flawed logic that a true gangsta can appreciate: Stanislavsky said that generalization is “the enemy of art”, and it is a common opinion that “the enemy of art” is hip-hop music. Therefore, if it is believed that hip-hop is the “enemy of art”, it is appropriate to generalize it.) After reaping their fortunes, their trashy desires are fulfilled without struggle due to unlimited resources in checkbook. Snoop Doggy Dogg, a modern influence on “gangsta rap”, boasts his persona as a “pimpsta”- a part-“gangsta” and part-pimp. “Most of [Snoop Dogg’s] lyrics represent nothing but senseless, banal, nihilism. The misogyny is so dense that it sounds more like little kids discovering nasty words for the first time than full-blown male pathos (Perkins, 147). Snoop Dogg also heavily affiliates himself with pornography, which has bolstered his credibility as a “real-pimp” and enhanced his attractiveness to Hollywood (Watkins, 208). The line that once divided pop culture from porn culture continues to be blurred, with porn chic in mainstream television, film, music and advertising (Watkins, 208). Advocacy of pornography fits snugly in with corporate hip-hop’s common misogyny. “The woman hating inclinations in corporate hip-hop have become so common, they appear ordinary” (Watkins, 209). Any progressive claims that the rap movement might make is undermined by hip-hop’s raging misogyny, which is routinely glamorized (Watkins, 219). Despite all, Snoop Dogg’s rap has been featured on 70 TV episodes and films. Such messages are sustained by their continued heavy use in films.
In Todd Philips’ comedy The Hangover, rap by Kanye West accompanies the four protagonists as they enter Las Vegas, commonly known as sin city. T.I.’s rap music accentuates their stay at Caesar’s Palace (to the auto-tune of 4200$ per night). What follows is a night of debauchery and degeneration that nobody remembers. Hip hop music was well employed in this instance, for only shallow, pathetic behavior took place. The characters’ ascent from normal life to the glamour and possible fortunes of Las Vegas mirrored the common journey of the rapper. The rap genre also contains the motif of “homies”, which The Hangover echoes in its central theme of “bromance”.
The group Three 6 Mafia won the most prestigious award for films, the Oscar, for their contribution to the film Hustle and Flow with their song “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp”. The film deals with the almost stereotypical ascent of the rapper from the gutter to the Grammys. The song, not unlike most rap music, uses offensive language, pre-elementary level grammar, and encourages highly immoral acts, such as capitalizing off of prostitutes and then complaining about the hardships that the illegal job endows. The song’s composition features no musical excellence, and follows a common recipe in its genre. “Hardcore gangsta rap has become so formulaic that capturing even a modicum of reality no longer seems to be a priority (Perkins, 147). Commending and encouraging such a message with such a prestigious honor only proves that it is recognized and accepted by the Academy that the hip hop world monumentalizes hypercapitalism and consumerism to the point where the woman is merely just another object to be owned, consumed and disposed of (Watkins, 215). The film’s use of the song is mediocre, cliché, nothing extraordinary, and can only be valued by its slight pathological effect. Hustle & Flow uses the song in the same way other films that feature a character writing a song that transcends diegetic boundaries do. Gangsta rap, the type of rap performed by Three 6 Mafia, is described as “pure profanity bereft of the rich storytelling and use of metaphor and simile that have been cornerstones of rap music since its origins (Perkins, 147).
Compare Craig Brewer’s use of Three 6 Mafia’s rap in Hustle & Flow to Woody Allen’s use of Art Tatum in Deconstructing Harry and his use of George Gershwin in Manhattan. Art Tatum’s ragtime jazz is subservient to the narration, yet it serves its moment and the emotions present wonderfully. The music changes in tempo, which progresses the story from one mood to the next and accelerates time from one point to the next. In a classic, humorous, signature fashion, Allen then employs a Tatum number with an eastern melody when the character Helen converts into a Jew. The jazz and classical music that Allen uses in his films takes many tones. “Jazz can be immensely complicated and brooding. As often as it can sound happy or sweet or shy, it can also be abstract, remote, churning and even upsetting” (King, xiii). Allen knows the versatility of jazz, for he employs different forms of it in his films, each with a new, different use. In his earlier career, he coupled the lightheartedness of ragtime piano with his physical, slapstick humor (Bananas and Take the Money and Run), and the essence of Dixieland for social commentary in Sleeper. In his later films such as Deconstructing Harry, Tatum’s jazz underlies diverse scenes of love, emotional anguish and happiness. Most notable in Deconstructing Harry is his coupling of eccentric jazz numbers over jump cuts, a jarring, self-conscious form of film editing, used in the film to suggest Harry’s mental instability. Even “The Girl from Ipanema” is given a unique use, narrating the mood of the character’s visit from a whore and ironically, the grim reaper. The use of the song “Oedipus Wrecks” commonly used by Allen in comical situations is very fitting to its relentless energy, yet it does not overpower the scene, letting the actors and mise-en-scene define the scene rather than the song defining it. In certain films, Allen pays homage by featuring a singular composer: Sergei Prokofiev in Love and Death, George Gershwin in Manhattan, Felix Mendelssohn in A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Kurt Weill in Shadows and Fog, Oscar Peterson in Play it Again, Sam, and Django Reinhardt in Sweet and Lowdown (Harvey, 6).
Fitting music to a film can be likened to tailoring a suit to a man. In Woody Allen’s Manhattan, he employs George Gershwin’s music to synchronize the lyrics with the actions within the film and the emotions of the characters. Allen does not just employ the opening song, “Rhapsody in Blue” as a one-trick-pony song to satiate. Many of Gershwin’s songs are called upon for their guidance to the story’s characters and themes. “Love is Sweeping the Country” contrasts the film’s world of lovelessness, lesbianism, divorce and single-parenting, “S’Wonderful” muses mention of “paradise” over a joyride with Isaac and Mary, “Embraceable You” plays over dancing and has the lyrics “irreplaceable you” to give counterpoint to the unsteadiness of the characters’ relationships, “Lady Be Good” fits over discussion of the publishing of Jill’s book revealing embarrassing facts about her marriage to Isaac, “Someone to Watch Over Me” ‘s allusions to a “lonesome babe in the wood…all alone in the big city”, and “Strike Up the Band” and “But Not for Me” connect to the theme of romantic quests as wasted effort and delusions (Morris, 57). The brilliance is sublime, for Allen used The New York Philharmonic Orchestra’s instrumental renditions of the Gershwin songs instead of the original versions with lyrics and singers. Instead of tailoring the suit to the film, the film is given the suit to which the film must grow to fit in. By eliminating the lyrics and leaving the emotional builds of the song as it was written, Allen does not force the emotions but rather lets them subtly manifest through Gershwin’s writing (the suit is elastic). Those who are not familiar with Gershwin’s catalogue experience the soundtrack as just enhancement to the on screen emotions. Yet, those that are see through it see that there is not just one narrator, but two. The emotions of the film and the actions of the film become symbiotic and would not be nearly as strong without the other. To devise such a use for music requires not only a strong intellect, but one that doesn’t lend itself to egoism. In this case, Allen’s acumen displays both attributes, and the usage does not blatantly alert the audience that this is a self-conscious decision and can be mutually enjoyed by those who know Gershwin’s lyrics and those who don’t.
Much of instrumental Jazz’s beauty lies in the fact that it has no lyrics. Without them, the music engages the listener in complex rhythms, harmonies and melodies, but does not force the listener into thinking about the lyricist’s matters. Instead, the listener may form opinions or contemplate freely among the musicians as they assist by constantly providing moods and emotions to think on top of. Rap music cannot provide this, as it is completely opposite to the nature of Jazz. Rappers constantly bombard orally with peer pressure containing ill-mannered behavior and anti-progressive rhythms and beats, which leave only a degenerative influence. There is no virtuousity in the music, opposed to Jazz, which requires that its players are very highly skilled. Jazz also varies greatly in speed, emotion, freedom and texture, unlike the simplicity, emotional bluntness, and formulaic elements of Rock & Roll. Jazz offers infinite intellectual resources by allowing the listener the luxury of neutrality and freedom to enter deep thought.

Works Cited
Ake, David Andrew. Jazz Cultures. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
Annie Hall. Dir. Woody Allen. Perf. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. United Artists Corporation, 1977. DVD.
Chungking Express = Chung Hing Sam Lam. Dir. Kar Wai Wong. Buena Vista Home Entertainment Inc., 1994. DVD.
Fiero, Gloria K. The Humanistic Tradition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006.
Harvey, Adam. The Soundtracks of Woody Allen: A Complete Guide to the Songs and Music in Every Film, 1969-2005. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2007.
Hustle & Flow. By Craig Brewer. Dir. Craig Brewer. 2005. DVD.
Kernfeld, Barry Dean. What to Listen for in Jazz. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
King, Jonny. What Jazz Is: An Insider’s Guide to Understanding and Listening to Jazz. New York: Walker and Co, 1997.
Manhattan. Dir. Woody Allen. Perf. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. United Artists, 1979. DVD.
Morris, Christopher. “Woody Allen’s Comic Irony.” The Films of Woody Allen: Critical Essays. By Charles L. P. Silet. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow, 2006. 50-57. Print.
Perkins, William Eric. Droppin’ Science: Critical Essays on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture.
Critical perspectives on the past. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.
Watkins, S. Craig. Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement. Boston: Beacon Press, 2005.


Woody Allen Quotes

May 5, 2010

Banned In Hollywood’s list of their favorite Allen quotes:
(Quotes are enhanced if read in Woody Allen’s voice)

I don’t think my parents liked me. They put a live teddy bear in my crib.

I failed to make the chess team because of my height.

I tended to place my wife under a pedestal.

I’m such a good lover because I practice a lot on my own.

If it turns out that there is a God, I don’t think that he’s evil. But the worst you can say about him is that he is an underachiever.

Most of the time I don’t have much fun. The rest of the time I don’t have any fun at all.

My luck is getting worse and worse. Last night, for instance, I was mugged by a Quaker.

My one regret in life is that I am not someone else.

Who bothers to cook TV dinners? I suck them frozen.

To you I’m an atheist; to God, I’m the loyal opposition.

Organized crime in America takes in over fourty billion dollars a year and spends very little on office supplies.

Sex without love is a meaningless experience, but as far as meaningless experiences go, it’s pretty damn good.

On the plus side, death is one of the few things that can be done just as easily lying down.

It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.

When we played softball, I’d steal second base, feel guilty, and go back.

Basically, my wife was immature. I’d be at home in the bath and she’d come in and sink my boats.

My education was dismal. I went to a series of schools for mentally disturbed teachers.

What if nothing exists and we’re all in somebody’s dream? Or what’s worse, what if only that fat guy in the third row exists?

You can live to be a hundred if you give up all the things that make you want to live to be a hundred.

He was so depressed, he tried committing suicide by inhaling next to an Armenian.

Pretty good list, even has a couple quotes from Insanity Defense.