Fucking (Excuse Me) the Tempo

We went to see The King’s Speech yesterday. Very enjoyable film, superb script, good performances, a classic feel-good movie yet a little unusual in its pacing and subject matter. But I’m not a film critic. Two things struck me. One was that it shared a lot of subject matter with Robert Ashley’s operas. Ashley overcame a temporary speech deficiency in high school, and his doctoral research (since Ross Lee Finney prevented him from becoming a composition major) was on stuttering. The tendency of swear words to slow down speech and allow the mind to think is a theme that runs through AtalantaForeign Experiences, and other Ashley works, and The King’s Speech reminded me of him over and over again. King George VI uses profanity as a way of getting past his speech impediment, something that Ashley alludes to frequently:

Instead, I learn to swear. Fuck, how simple!
It’s so mother-fucking simple. You Swear.
Instead of talking all the time, you swear.
And since foul language fucks the tempo,
The fucking thing slows down, and you start
Thinking again! [Foreign Experiences, Act III, lines 133-138]

Point two: The film’s major flaw, the one thing that jerked me out of it and deflated my suspension of disbelief, was the slapdash insertion of pieces by Beethoven in the final scenes. During King George’s historic address to the nation after Germany’s declaration of war, the background (or almost foreground) music is the slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh. That was a little cheap, but arguably effective enough. But then, during his triumphant denouement, they play the second movement of the Emperor Concerto. First of all, the slow movement did not sound like an ending, but an inconclusive middle.* Secondly and most heinously, to celebrate this triumph of British determination over the Germans by playing German music in the background was absolutely tone-deaf (and yes, I am very well aware of the use of Beethoven’s Fifth in war-time as an Allied symbol for its dot-dot-dot-dash “V for Victory” association, but this was completely different in its effect). I could far better have accepted the Pomp and Circumstance marches as at least imbued with some cultural resonance. Instead, it was like the audience was assumed to be totally ignorant: “here’s a really touching moment, let’s throw in some classical music to make it sound appropriately solemn.” Thirdly, the scene deserved its own made-to-order music, not some DGG CD half-heartedly thrown on in the background. I had been wrapped up in the movie, and the music score ruined the ending for me completely. There’s no telling whether it was a stunning failure of imagination by the composer (Alexandre Desplat) or a resoundingly boneheaded decision by the director. But to anyone sufficiently educated to be even slightly susceptible to the cultural overtones, it was mother-fucking stupid.

*This same piece, the Emperor Concerto’s second movement, was also used for the Australian film Picnic at Hanging Rock, in which ambiguous and deceptively pastoral context it is infinitely more effective.


Comments

  1. says

    Ai yai yai.

    How’s this for musical boneheadedness in movieland? The life, legend, and music of Fats Waller provide a major thread running through the dopey comedy “Be Kind Rewind.” In the climactic, bittersweet, sentimental scene, as the neighborhood gathers together to watch the amateur film production of Waller’s life, on the soundtrack is . . . a Duke Ellington number!!!

    Boggles the mind.

  2. says

    Clearly all King George VI needed to do was sit in a room (no doubt different than the one we are in now), and record the sound of his speaking voice and play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves…to smooth out any irregularities his speech must have

    (sorry, bad joke.)

    KG replies: I laughed out loud. Wish I’d thought of it, actually.

  3. says

    Agree. The film was quite enjoyable, cheesy but nicely done. The original score on the other hand was a real missed opportunity and left me thinking the director really isn’t interested in music (are any these days?). The bits of Desplat’s music I can remember seemed more of an alibi for music than anything else (personally I found this more offensive than the use of other composers’ music). Where are today’s Herrmanns and Morricones? (too many ‘hummers’ with sequencers who get others to orchestrate their drab guff).

  4. says

    “(too many ‘hummers’ with sequencers who get others to orchestrate their drab guff).”

    Don’t say that, I have just been paid a lot of money to orchestrate a midi file for large orchestra!

  5. Eric Grunin says

    The days when Eisenstein would edit to match Prokofiev’s score, well, that was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

    Soundtracks are composed in an insanely short period of time, which is one reason why a small group of composers get a disproportionate share of the work: not everyone can score that fast.

    Also possibly relevant: it sounds like the director used the Beethoven as a ‘temp track’ during editing, and fell in love with it. Then he turns to the composer and says “it has to be just like this.” At this point, sometimes the composer just gives up, even though he makes less money (from album sales).

  6. Kyle says

    I had a near identical flashback to several Ashley scenes when I caught the film last month. Really fascinating stuff. Same sentiments about the “cheap but effective”-ness of the Beethoven in that final scene as well. I had chills the entire time and was KICKING myself for succumbing to such base semiotic exploitation!

    P.S.: The lines you’re quoting are from Foreign Experiences, of course, not Atalanta

    KG replies: Shit, I knew there was something wrong with that Act III citation. Thanks.

  7. says

    “Don’t say that, I have just been paid a lot of money to orchestrate a midi file for large orchestra!”

    Funny :-)

    Seriously, I’m suggesting directors pull their heads from their arses and give proper musicians like yourself the work in the first place.

  8. says

    Hi Ed, thanks for your reply. To be honest the composer I worked with was very good and has just won an award. All harmony, counter-themes, melodies and orchestration were accurately worked out, there were no technical nor compositional mistakes, I just converted it into musical notation and added phrasing. In fact the old Hollywood orchestrators, who worked from a short score, would have had to do a lot more work.

    However I do agree with you regarding many people who do film music. Believe it or not I have heard of some bad tricks directors or editors get involved in. For instance they will add their simple arpeggios on a sampled guitar sound and compare it to an unsuitable piece by a good composer, so that their piece looks better.
    Although I think the post-punk songs go well with teen movies, editors seem to have little taste and chop up great music without realising how horrible it sounds.

    In the U.K. there is a detective series set in Scotland called Taggart. One episode had abstract electronica while the suspect was being interviewed at night. The electronic sounds sounded random yet felt really structured, it was perfect for the dark scene. It was so good that I immediately emailed the composer – Malcolm Lindsay – to congratulate him on great music, and also convincing the director to use such left-field electronica.

  9. Spero Theodore says

    I agree with you about the bone-headed use of German music in the film. Rather than some march by Elgar I would have chosen some piece by Eric Coates even if the piece of pieces selected were written after the war. Perhaps something from Vaughn Williams and/or Delius would have been good choices and certainly much better
    ones than the German ones used in the film.

  10. mclaren says

    Eric Grunin mentioned: The days when Eisenstein would edit to match Prokofiev’s score, well, that was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

    Soundtracks are composed in an insanely short period of time…

    It ain’t necessarily so. Did you know that John Williams composed the score for Close Encounters of the Third Kind before Spielberg filmed the scenes? Spielberg then filmed the scenes and edited ‘em to fit with Williams’ music. So that kind of thing does occasionally happen. A more recent example is Koyaanisqatsi, for which Philip Glass wrote the music before Godfrey Reggio filmed the movie.

    So this kind of thing still occasionally happens. The most recent example I’m aware of is the xenharmonic music for the indie film The Biology of Limbo, once again composed by Stephen James Taylor before the film was shot and edited.

    As for The King’s Speech, you’d expect they would have used Ralph Vaughn Williams, wouldn’t you? Maybe his fifth symphony. About the right time period too. Once again, the obsessive mania for German composers warps everyone’s preconceptions. No good music has ever been composed except by Germans during the 18th and 19th centuries…or so our Western musical culture would have us believe.

  11. Jim Fogle says

    At first I thought the choice of music from Beethoven 7 strange and inappropriate but as I tend to try very hard to find some reason for things, having this particular strain possibly underlines the pressures of the German advances in Europe the the new king felt. Its use might be more appropriate than British music might have been. Wagner would have been over the top!

  12. Greg Allan says

    Maybe, just maybe, not everyone hears a piece of music and immediately considers the cultural and historical significance. When it comes to music, I’m most certainly wandering in the valley of the giants here, but I thought I’d throw in the two cents of a layman.

    When I hear Beethoven, I don’t think, “This music is German.” I think, “This is classical music.” I’m aware that Beethoven himself was German, but it doesn’t occur to me to think of his music as German as well. It’s just music. When a scene in a movie calls for music, just pick something that matches the moment – be it written by Beethoven, Benny Goodman, or The Beatles – and I likely won’t even stop to consider the cultural significance of the selection. Where it was written and who it was written by aren’t as important to me as how well it fits in the movie.

    In this case, it sounds like it didn’t fit for other reasons as well. I just wanted to point out that some people don’t need British scenes to have exclusively British music.

    • says

      Thank you, Greg, for articulating this. I’m sure the director would be astonished to hear that some people think of Beethoven’s Seventh as “German” music, and that that quality supersedes its human, emotional and structural qualities.

      That said, it does smell a lot like a piece of temp music that he wasn’t willing to let go of…

  13. Juhani Nuorvala says

    Kyle, the final speech may have had Beethoven in the background but did you notice the resemblance of its rhythms and phrasing to those of Cage’s Lecture on Nothing (et al.)?

  14. John Maxwell Hobbs says

    Don’t forget, George the VI was German himself, as is the current Monarch.