The Sunday Intertitle: Style and Title

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Getting back to Edinburgh on Thursday, I returned to work the following day to see a talk by Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s brother-in-law and producer, director of the Malcolm McDowell documentary O LUCKY MALCOLM! etc (pictured above with Head of Film & TV Emma Davie).

Harlan is a delightful fellow, and the theme of his talk — music in cinema — was one he was well-qualified to discuss having worked with Kubrick on all his scores from 2001 on, and having an extensive knowledge of classical music. The wide range of film clips he presented illustrated how music can be used as a storytelling tool, to control the pace, to enhance character and to generally beautify the film. Harlan was, in effect, proselytizing for classical music and suggesting that all filmmakers should study it and fall in love with it. “If you don’t love it, you’re likely to ruin it,” was his mantra. And, “If you want to know how you acquire ownership of art, it’s very simple: you just fall in love with it and it becomes yours.”

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It’s a huge and tricky subject. My advice has often been to never use a piece of music you know from another film. TV magazine shows do this — so that you couldn’t escape PULP FICTION’s surf guitar for at least a year on TV — and many documentaries do this, because to a large extent documentaries haven’t learned to take themselves seriously as art — hence they recycle titles from other movies, or slightly adapt them, which otherwise only porno movies do. There are exceptions to my rule — years before Kubrick made the Blue Danube his own, Julien Duvivier had used in memorably in THE GREAT WALTZ, where obviously you couldn’t avoid it, but more excitingly, Clouzot had used it with great imagination in THE WAGES OF FEAR, where Yves Montand slewed his truck all over the road in waltz time. But Kubrick had confidence that he could trump those films, and he was right.

But when that plinky-plonk bit of Carl Orff that forms the theme of BADLANDS gets used in TRUE ROMANCE and MONSTER, the filmmakers don’t think they’re superceding BADLANDS. They’re just copying BADLANDS. And the thinking seems to be, “Young couple, road movie, murders, therefore we need the music from BADLANDS.” Absurd. The deliberate placing of your film in second-best position. A failure of imagination. A dive into the mediocre.

Harlan’s suggestion to study the field is sound advice, because filmmakers have exhibited a dreadful tendency to repeat the same few pieces of the repertoire until they become unsuitable for any use save parody. Barber’s Adaggio is an obvious victim (David Lynch used it beautifully before PLATOON, and when Harlan showed the PLATOON clip I was struck by the obscenity of it — whose tragedy is this music expressing? As the American soldiers burn a Vietnamese village and separate civilian families, we are being asked to feel sorry for the soldiers, the poor youth of America who are being corrupted by violence). Lahkme by Delibes has been done to death not just by Tony Scott, who in fairness obviously loved the piece, but by everyone else who can’t be bothered selecting something less hackneyed (Brian DePalma and CARLITO’S WAY, stand up).

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The counter-argument to Harlan and Kubrick’s suggestion that the best music ever composed is all available to us, is that it may be the best music but is it right for the film you’re making? It’s notable that FULL METAL JACKET uses not only considerable original score, performed by Kubrick’s daughter on the Fairlight synthesiser, the rest of its music is period-appropriate pop of a particularly and deliberately moronic nature (I like some of those songs a lot, but taken as a group I think they’re making a not-too-subtle comment of the dumbness of pop culture). Maybe PLATOON and APOCALYPSE NOW forced Kubrick’s hand — using classical pieces would have invited invidious comparisons — but I think Kubrick’s ultimate decision also skirts the western-centric solemnity and false dignity that could come from pasting high culture all over barbaric acts.

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14 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Style and Title”

  1. AND LEAVE US NOT FORGET —

  2. Harlan found a very cheap recording of Beethoven for Clockwork Orange, because everybody was after stereo and movies only needed mono. The notoriously frugal Kubrick must have appreciated that no end.

  3. The abominable FORREST GUMP used music in a seriously painful way, literally overlaying Harry Nillosn’s “Everybody’s Talkin’ ” into scenes that purposely aped Midnight Cowboy. Why that movie garners so much love leases me worried for humanity.

  4. Zemeckis, for all his undoubted abilities, has an abominable way with music, as Flight, which was otherwise something of a return to form after the appalling mo-crap cycle, demonstrated. For RZ, the music must always be (1) extremely well-known so everyone in the audience is familiar with it (2) on-the-nose lyrically so nobody has to question why it’s being used. I’m sure his “Everybody’s Talkin'” scene also featured lots of shots of people talking.

    It was better when he had Huey Lewis.

    Fortunately, I think Forrest Gump has now entered the domain of films people can’t quite believe were popular.

  5. I like THIS song from Zemekis’ best film.

  6. I wish I could remember who it was, but someone on Twitter remarked in the wake of Zemeckis’ FLIGHT that it seems as though every album he owns must be a “Best Of” compilation.

    Nice observations about Kubrick’s use of music in FULL METAL JACKET; some of the selections are very pointed, particularly the use of “These Boots Are Made For Walkin'”, with its very Vietnam-appropriate lines “You’ve been messin’ where you shouldn’t been a’messin’/Now someone else is getting all your best.”

  7. The Zemickis line is PERFECT.

    I guess what could be overly-pointed commentary in the Nancy Sinatra song is disguised by another kind of literalness: open scene on shot of girl walking.

    It’s a little disappointing the way Kubes endlessly repeats his sinister piano motif in Eyes Wide Shut. I wonder if he’d have modified it if he’d lived longer.

  8. Keith Gordon’s excellently tender adaptation of Mother Night introduced me to Arvo Part. Now Spiegel im Speigel is bloody everywhere, but Gordon seems to have got there first.

  9. It’s interesting that you cite Keith Gordon. He was a regular contributor and commenter on the old alt.movies.kubrick Usenet newsgroup and an obvious fan (Katharina Kubrick Hobbs happily answered all questions there too).

    There are some glorious Terrence Malick classical soundtracks. He seems to have inspired Hans Zimmer’s greatest original score in The Thin Red Line which has occasional suggestions of an Arvo Part divine stillness amongst the bombast. I’m not sure if Kubrick ever used Arvo Part’s music but I’ve always felt that there was an emotional connection between their works. So glad that you got to meet Jan Harlen, David.

  10. “It’s a little disappointing the way Kubes endlessly repeats his sinister piano motif in Eyes Wide Shut. I wonder if he’d have modified it if he’d lived longer.”

    Again, without cite, I remember Christiane mentioning in an interview after his death that he had just inserted a new piece of music before finishing the cut. I wonder if it was that; it is used once or twice too often (and is totally unnecessary in the coffee shop scene, where it drowns out Mozart, of all people). At any rate, it’s silly to think he wouldn’t have had further edits in the three-four months between his passing and film’s release; he does scores of takes, changed one movie after its premiere and another both after it had been out for a week and before it went to Europe, and he would have just sat around for a few months not changing anything? I guess he could have spent the whole time measuring newspaper ads …

  11. I’m sure he’d have found SOMETHING to tinker with. It must be rather awful for the heirs, not only to lose him but to have to try and divine his artistic intentions. Mr. Harlan was much too nice for me to antagonize with awkward questions about aspect ratios…

    Malick, like Kubrick (and so many others) has a tendency to fall in love with his temp tracks and incorporate bits of them into the final score (to the irritation of James Horner). I often wonder how Kubrick’s work might have developed if he’d had the chance to work with a *really* good film composer early on.

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