• Movies look real. This is the source of their power: they seem to show us life as it is and people as they are. To be sure, a movie does not have to be real to seem real. Good genre films, for instance, take unreal situations and fill them with convincing emotional content. You probably don’t know any detectives or cowboys, but you know people like Robert Mitchum and Randolph Scott, and so you accept the conventional premises of films like Out of the Past and Ride Lonesome in much the same way that you accept the self-evident absurdities of Swan Lake or Il Trovatore. But when a movie is situated in a precisely observed modern-day setting, you natually expect believable things to happen there, and when they don’t, you roll your eyes and get giggly.
Though the metaphor embodied in its nickname is long dead, everyone in the world understands that a “movie” consists of “moving pictures,” and it is in the nature of a picture—a photograph—that we take for granted its unfaked reality. A century ago, our great-grandparents were scared out of their wits when one of the villains in The Great Train Robbery pointed his gun at the audience and fired it. Nowadays we’re more sophisticated than that, but most of us still cling to the belief that a film is in some attenuated but still meaningful sense a record of something that actually happened, if only on a soundstage.
Will our children feel this way about film? I doubt it. For one thing, most of the big-ticket movies to which they flock make use of digitally generated special effects, many of which are more or less invisible to the naked eye but a growing number of which are intended to be seen as fake. Indeed, postmodern filmmakers are more inclined to brag about their use of such effects than to cover it up. At the same time, younger photo editors at mass-circulation magazines are increasingly open to using digital technology to “enhance” still photographs, and even though old-fashioned newsmen continue to treat such manipulation as inappropriate, even unethical, I can’t imagine that this informal prohibition will last much longer.
Remember the sign in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King? “Everything not forbidden is compulsory.” Or, as one of Dostoyevsky’s characters put it, “Man grows used to everything—the scoundrel!”
• Speaking of movies, a reader writes:
Is there any classic Hollywood comedy from the golden age with a great or even near-great musical score? In fact, is there any Hollywood comedy from any age with such a score? In discussing this with some of my fellow film “connoisseurs,” none of us could think of one.
Neither can I. To be sure, I can think of any number of fine film comedies whose well-crafted scores contribute greatly to their total effect, but in none of them is the music truly distinguished in its own right.
I was so surprised to come up empty-handed that I decided to go at the problem from the other end by drawing up a list of my ten favorite Hollywood film scores: Elmer Bernstein’s The Magnificent Seven, Leonard Bernstein’s On the Waterfront, Aaron Copland’s The Heiress, Hugo Friedhofer’s The Best Years of Our Lives, Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo, Jerry Goldsmith’s Chinatown, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Adventures of Robin Hood, Alex North’s A Streetcar Named Desire, David Raksin’s Laura, and Miklós Rózsa’s Brute Force. Not one of these films is a comedy.
What, if anything, does this interesting fact tell us about the nature and function of dramatic music? I’m not sure. No doubt it’s relevant that most great operas are tragedies—but it’s also true that the two greatest operas ever written, The Marriage of Figaro and Falstaff, are both comedies.
I wish I could shed light on this apparent paradox, but for the moment I’m clueless.
UPDATE: Alex Ross speculates on the aforementioned conundrum, and offers a list of his own film-score favorites.
Mr. My Stupid Dog has some additional relevant thoughts.
From Chicago, Mr. Deceptively Simple chimes in.
Once more with feeling: Mr. Soho the Dog. (I seem to have started a meme!)