Music and the Moving Image 2009

AKA 3 Days and 27 Papers Later…

It’s hard summarize a conference, even if it was on the concentrated topic of “Music and the Moving Image.”  So I’ll start in broad terms: it was a good experience for me in many way, I heard many great papers, and listening to other scholars in the field speak has given me confidence in my own research.  And even though my shy nature kept me from asking many questions and talking to everyone there, I was able to force myself to talk to a few and very much enjoyed the brief conversations I did have.  In short, I definitely want to go back next year, and hopefully I can present this time (I did submit for this year, and will do so again for next year).  But even if I’m not presenting, I would still like to go if possible.

Anyway, I’ll discuss briefly two of the 27 papers I heard.  First is Matt Young’s “Who is the Iron Man?: Establishing Identity in Comic Book Films.”  Unfortunately I didn’t take notes on this one, but I remember most of it.  Basically, Mr. Young’s paper dealt with how the identity of the hero is constructed in a superhero film, both in terms of plot and music, but goes on to discuss how the establishment of the heroic identity is frustrated in the recent film Iron Man, directed by Jon Favreau (who is so money and doesn’t even know it…sorry, just had to quote Swingers there).

This establishment is three fold: first a music theme is tied to the hero (usual during the opening credits sequence), the hero states their new identity (the “I’m Batman” moment), and that identity is recognized by the media.  Obviously much discussion was made about the music itself, but he did discuss the other two also, but I’ll only discuss the musical aspect here.  The musical establishment function is undermined from the start, not only is there no opening credit sequence, the film immediately opens in the Afghani desert to the sound of wind.  After the establishing shot, we are greeted to AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” which is exactly not the song one would expect to hear (which would have been Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” which had been prominetely featured in the film’s ad campaign).  When, after the lengthy exposition, we finally do have a title card, there is no music, but rather just the sound of metal striking metal, and we hear Jeff Bridge’s character say “Tony Stark,” dialogue bleeding in from the next scene.  Young makes the point that our hearing Stark’s name mentioned over the “Iron Man” title card further weakens the heroic identity, something further achieved by the many denials of the existence of Iron Man by the army and others.

Iron Man himself has no solid musical identity in the film, but rather is accompanied by guitar riffs and other industrial sounds in the soundtrack, while Tony Stark does have a theme (which Young pointed out was taken from the theme song of the old Iron Man cartoon), this theme is even played diegetically as the ring tone on Rhodes mobile phone.  Young further more establishes that all three of the identity establishing motives come at the very end of the film.  First we see the name “Iron Man” printed in the media, then Stark, in the last line of the film, states that “I am Iron Man,” and as the credits begin to roll, we are greeted by our long sought for Black Sabbath song (of which, of course, the opening line is “I am Iron Man,” but Favreau chooses to start the song after that line, and actually edits the snippet we do here so that there are no sung lyrics).  All in all, an interesting reading of the film’s use of music, and one that shows that even when a film’s score isn’t the best, how it functions within it still can be a worthwhile investigation.

The other paper I want to discuss came during a panel that was devoted to sound design in film.  First James Wierzbicki of the University of Michigan discussed design in six early films of Hitchcock (sometimes called the “Thriller” Sextet), and the third paper was from Liz Greene, who actually works in the industry along with teaching, discussed the work of Alan Splet.  But it is Juan Chattah’s paper “Defying Sound Design Convention: A Model for Analysis” that I would like to discuss briefly.

What Chattah has done is lay out a very clear system and terms for talking about sound design, one that I touched on in my post on Diegetic and Non-Diegetic and shifts between them.  But even though people have talked about these shifts and moves in the aural space, what Chattah has done is to lay out a consistent way of speaking about them (and there was discussion afterwards about the very use of terms ‘diegetic’ and ‘non-diegetic,’ which I believe were first applied by Claudia Gorbman in Unheard Melodies, though I’m not sure, but that’s neither here nor there).  In short, Chattah calls the “Diegetic” and “Non-Diegetic” space “Fields” and then within each field you have three separate “planes”: the voice (dialogue), music, and noise.  He then outlined three ways in which sounds can shift or interact between fields and planes.  First is Overlap (in which two elements of the same planes interact between fields, for which he used the final scene of “The Conversation” as an example, a film that came up many times in various papers), second is Replacement (music replaces noise is one example), and then Transference (which can happen as music moves between fields, but also in other ways, noise shifting to music, but a move between fields is necessary…I think).

A very interesting talk, and I’ll have to be on the look out for him publishing the system, it could come in handy down the road.  I also heard two separate papers on the use of Wagner in John Boorman’s Excaliber, sound and music in two films by Michael Hanake, two papers on use of sound and musique concrete in Gus van Sant, and another on Ne0-Surrealism and the MTV aesthetic in Richard Linklater’s Waking Life.

In review, a great conference, and I would recommend if you are at all interested in film and media music to check it out.  The site for the conference is here and you can actually still look at the abstracts for this year’s conference.  Keep a look out on the site, I think the call for papers will go out around September or so.

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