Book Review: “Listening to Fellini – Music and Meaning in Black and White” by M. Thomas Van Order

I’ve done Score/CD reviews before, but now for something a little different: a book review.  I hope this to be the first of many as I make my way through books on the topic of film and film music.  I’ve read books dealing with film music theory (Unheard Melodies, Overtones and Undertones, and others), but this is really this first book that I’ve read that puts theory into practice.

Books dealing solely with theory are difficult to read, in my opinion, because there isn’t as much of a “narrative,” if you will, current to them.  In essence, they read like texts books, and we all know what that is like.  Don’t get me wrong, they are very useful to read, and great resources, but as books that you sit down and read from cover to cover…not so much.  But what Van Order, a professor of Italian at Middlebury College in Vermont, has done in Listening to Fellini is create a book that is not only readable but also highly insightful, along with being a very good academic study of how Fellini uses music in his films.

The scope of this book is limited to the Italian director’s Black and White films with scores by Nina Rota, and this limiting in scope helps focus his project and allow him to dedicate at least 10-15 pages on each of the seven films considered (Lo sceicco bianco, I vitelloni, La strada, Il bidone, Le notti di Cabiria, La dolce vita, and 8 1/2).  I myself have only seen two of the films (La strada and 8 1/2), and both were seen by me over five years and my only strong memory is of the closing scene of 8 1/2 (which features one of, what I now know are,  Rota’s signature circus marches that he wrote for Fellini’s films).  One of the highest compliments that I feel I can pay to this book is that Van Order does a wonderful job describing the film and plot alongside his musical analysis such that I don’t feel that an intimate knowledge of the film is necessary to my understanding of his points (something that I feel when I read much academic film writing).

The text of the book itself is relatively short, only 145 pages, but after that follows nearly 100 pages of appendices in which he breaks down each of the films into a series of sequences and details their aural content and describes the action.  He references these sequences in text, though it is not necessary to look them up, but they do help deepen a reader’s understanding. 

There are two chapters that I would like to highlight, though, as especially insightful:

-Van Order dedicates two chapters to La strada.  The first is his analysis of the music and its editing (the sort of content that make up the book’s focus), the second La strada chapter, though, discusses the English language version of the film, and how the American sound editors not only replaced dialogue, but also changed the music.  Putting cues where they hadn’t been before, using some different music, and remixing the levels.  The main thread of the book is describing how carefully Fellini would edit the sound in his films, the mixing levels, where music goes, and the American editors destroyed that.  Essentially editing the sound as they would a typical Hollywood film.  But Fellini, as Van Order shows, is very careful.  He plays on an audience’s expectations, violates the diegetic/non-diegetic spaces, sometimes creating a meta-diegetic space that exists solely within the filmic environment.  And his use of music goes beyond simple character or idea themes, but rather helps to illustrate on a very subtle level certain aspects of the characters, aspects that the characters themselves (along with audience) only become aware of as the film unfolds and the theme accumulates the meaning.  And by contrasting the two versions of La strada (both available on the Criterion release of the film I believe), he brings his main point into stark relief.

-The second chapter I would like to bring forward is his discussion of La dolce vita.  By far the longest chapter in his book, Van Order discusses in depth the music of the film, its sources (here Fellini/Rota reference Pines of Rome and Threepenny Opera) and how these references and their music as interpreted within Rota’s score operates within the film’s story.  Van Order disscues in exhaustive detail the original sources and how Fellini brings in the ideas and feelings of them and incorprates them into the film.

Van Order’s conclusions also lay out other aspects for future studies, including what he calls “horizontal” study, which would entail seeing how certain repeated musical elements (like Circus Marches) function across his film output.  He also suggests looking at sound itself (effects like trains, etc), and their functions within Fellini’s film world.  In all, it is a very well written and researched look at music in the films of Fellini.  One that avoids becoming burdened by overly technical musical language (the musical examples were transcribed for him by an undergrad assistant whom he credits), and focuses on how music brings out what Fellini was saying in his films.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: “Listening to Fellini – Music and Meaning in Black and White” by M. Thomas Van Order

  1. Well I’ve never seen any of Fellini’s films and I don’t know a lot of Rota’s music, but I’m definitely adding this book to my Amazon wishlist. I’m also thinking of adding some of those films to our Netflix queue.

    Anyway, since you find all this intriguing you might consider Jack Sullivan’s “Hitchcock’s Music” which is a study in much the same vein as this one. He actually does a good job highlighting each of Hitch’s films (some more than others) and how he uses not only music but also sound and how certain sounds are representative across his oeuvre (sound being especially important in his early sound films). It’s written very much from a non-technical standpoint and, to my recollection, doesn’t actually have any music examples. It’s just a straightforward descriptive analysis. (Did I also mention that the book is RIDICULOUSLY cheap? It can be had at Amazon for $15. NEW. Get it.).


  2. I think I heard them referencing the Sullivan Hitchcock book during the paper on Hitchcock sound design at MaMI. Since I don’t know Hitchcock’s films very well (outside of NbNW…yes I know, and I dear to call myself a film fan), I haven’t looked into it, but I think my library has it, so I’ll check it out.

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