Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Music and Meaning in The Gift

By S

I always found "Howard's End" to be a wonderful example of how music is employed effectively in a movie, and interwoven into the story. Leonard and Helen are attending a lecture entitled "Music and Meaning", while the lecturer is dissecting the second movement of Beethoven's Fifth. After leaving the lecture hall Helen takes poor Leonard's umbrella by accident as the rain pours down, prompting Leonard to follow her to her home and he is invited up for a tea. This chance meeting drives the rest of the story, but what always strikes me as so effective is the recurrence of these themes, both the music and the lecture. Beethoven's music reappears in Leonard's nightmare sequence, where the rain pours and the crowd and an iron gate separates him from Helen. The "Music and Meaning" lecture recurs many times, first as part of the intrigue as Leonard's wife gets suspicious of his whereabouts, and again much later in an exchange between a despondent Leonard and Helen:

LEONARD: "I didn't think people like you existed except in books. And books aren't real."

HELEN: "They're more real than anything! When people fail you, there's still 'music and meaning'".

The deliberate and effective recurrence of themes, in the visuals, the dialogue, and the music, was also one of the key ingredients in "The Gift", and one of the reasons why this is now my favorite of our machinima movies since "Dignity of Men"*. Much like in classical music composition, the structure of the movie can be built from a few fundamental themes and the contrast between the different themes - some opposing and some related - can be used to build into a satisfactory climax and conclusion.

When we started off, a few of those themes were clear to me. But not until much later, resulting from lots of helpful discussions with K and after the visuals of the movies were almost completed, did all the musical themes outlined below present themselves as strong elements in the movie. Here is a guide to the musical themes in The Gift:

For obvious reasons, good old Ludwig van Beethoven was a leading candidate to highlight this element in the movie. Among the classical composers Beethoven has always provided the ultimate image of the struggling artist - his deafness and his increasing isolation in real life, and his documented struggle to find the right music. In "The Gift" we picked a familiar theme from the last movement of the Moonlight Sonata to accompany the beginning W.H. Auden quote and the black-and-white dream sequence, while the protagonist Phil plays the fiery introduction of that movement (not that well since he is drunk and I lack the technique) while his phone is ringing.

This theme accompanies the main character's daily routine, as he carries on with his role as a part of the "big machine": wake up, jog along the freeway, put on a suit, go to work.

This is first introduced in the opening scene, when Phil stops for a moment after jogging and has a vision. Marie's ghost reintroduces the theme with the words "isn't there music?". So, as you can guess, this theme is about Music itself in the protagonist's life. Much like what Helen Schlegel was talking about in Howard's End, there is something mysterious about Music that elevates it to an almost religious level. It is part of the mystery of being alive.

The "Death Wish" theme is a dangerous variation on "The Imaginary Song". We first hear it on one of the recurring highway jogging sequences, when we see the close up of the fast approaching car. This is where the protagonist's death wish is made visually and aurally much more explicit, but not yet in words. This theme is later further developed as the despondent protagonist wanders about the dark streets.

For this we used the slow movement of Sergei Prokofiev's Second Sonata, a twentieth-century piece that contains a lot of pathos. The theme itself appears twice and is at the very conclusion of the movie as well. It encompasses the sadness of life that is full of unfulfilled potential and the resignation to the human condition in which we all have to continue on.

* Kate, however, says that carefully arranged repetitions and variations have been the key ingredient of many of her previous screenplays, and that such repetition is a prominent and important element of Incubus, for example.