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The Musicality of Narrative Film

Palgrave Studies in Audio-Visual Culture

Series Editor: K. J. Donnelly, University of Southampton, UK

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Graduate Centre, CUNY, USA and Elisabeth Weis, Brooklyn College, CUNY, USA.
The aesthetic union of sound and image has become a cultural dominant. A junc-
tion for aesthetics, technology and theorisation, film’s relationship with music
remains the crucial nexus point of two of the most popular arts and richest cul-
tural industries. Arguably, the most interesting area of culture is the interface of
audio and video aspects, and that film is the flagship cultural industry remains
the fount and crucible of both industrial developments and critical ideas.
Palgrave Studies in Audio-Visual Culture has an agenda-setting aspiration.
By acknowledging that radical technological changes allow for rethinking exist-
ing relationships, as well as existing histories and the efficacy of conventional
theories, it provides a platform for innovative scholarship pertaining to the
audio-visual. While film is the keystone of the audio-visual continuum, the series
aims to address blind spots such as video game sound, soundscapes and sound
ecology, sound psychology, art installations, sound art, mobile telephony and
stealth remote viewing cultures.

Titles include:

Anna Katharina Windisch and Claus Tieber (editors)

New Perspectives on History, Theory and Practice
Danijela Kulezic-Wilson

Palgrave Studies in Audio-Visual Culture

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The Musicality of Narrative
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To Ian
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List of Figures ix

Acknowledgements x

Part I The Topography of Film Musicality

1 Introduction 3
What is musical(ity)? 5
The musicality of film as metaphor 10
Musical poetics of film 12

2 Music as Model and Metaphor 18

Tracing the origins of contemporary film/music analogies 18
Film’s musical potential and contemporary film music
practice 24
The influence of MTV 29

Part II Comparative Analysis of Music and Film

3 The Musicality of Film Rhythm 37
Music rhythm and its reflection in aspects of film rhythm 38
Rhythm, metre and Gestalt laws of perception 40
Rhythm of the shot and the cut 44

4 The Rhythm of Rhythms 52

Macro-rhythm and issues of perception 52
The immersive power of form 55
Repetition as a structural and a musical device 57
The power of patterns 65
The musicality of narrative and editing patterns 69

5 Musical and Film Kinesis 73

The illusion of movement 74
Musical movement within a shot 77
Musical movement of editing 80
Audio-visual motion and emotion 82
The kinesis of audio-visual interaction 86
The musicality of cinema action 88

viii Contents

6 The Symbolic Nature of Musical and Film Time 93

Time in music and film 94
Philosophical and spiritual dimensions of linear
and nonlinear time in music and film 97
Multiple temporalities in music and film 102
Time as a symbol 105
Music as a portal into the multiple temporalities
of the Lynchian universe 107

Part III Case Studies

7 Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man and the Rhythm of
Musical Form 117
From cool to political, spiritual and musical 118
Structural rhythm 121
Rhythm of silence and sound 124
Micro-rhythm 126
Rhythm of time, space and motion 128
Affective rhythm 131

8 Hip Hop and Techno Composing Techniques and

Models of Structuring in Darren Aronofsky’s π 137
Paranoid filmmaking as an inspiration for paranoid analysis 137
The patterns 140
Hip hop editing 142
Audio-visual kinesis and musical patterning 148
Techno flow 155

9 Audio-Visual Musicality and Reflexivity in Joe Wright’s

Anna Karenina 158
Love and lust 160
Opposites, gaps and the porous borders between them 162
Flowing movement, morphing desires 165
Nuts, bolts and invisible joints 171
The powers of fate 174

Conclusion 179

Notes 186

Bibliography 197

Filmography 209

Index 212

7.1 My own transcription of the musical theme from Dead

Man composed by Neil Young, recorded by Vapor records,
1996 122
7.2 William Blake in the village of Makah Indians (Dead Man,
Jim Jarmusch, 1995) 134
8.1 Max Cohen taking his pills (π , Darren Aronofsky, 1998) 145
8.2 Rhythmic transcription of sound effects accompanying
the images of Max taking pills (π , Darren Aronofsky,
1998) 146
8.3 Rhythmic transcription of sound effects accompanying
the images of Max locking the door (π , Darren Aronofsky,
1998) 146
8.4 Transcription of the visual rhythm of the
pill-taking/door-locking scene (π , Darren Aronofsky,
1998) 146
8.5 Transcription of the sonic rhythm of the
pill-taking/door-locking scene (π , Darren Aronofsky,
1998) 146
8.6 Transcription of the audio-visual rhythm of the
pill-taking/door-locking scene (π , Darren Aronofsky,
1998) 147
8.7 Max Cohen stating his assumptions about patterns in
nature (π , Darren Aronofsky, 1998) 153
9.1 Anna Karenina confronted with the distorted image of
her face in a ballroom mirror (Anna Karenina, Joe Wright,
2012) 168


During the long and convoluted path of researching, writing and then
abandoning this book for a while I always knew that if it was ever pub-
lished, the main person to thank would be Kevin Donnelly without
whose generous support, faith in the project and persistent nudging
I would never had gathered enough energy and confidence to see it
through. I’m also very grateful to Chris Penfold for his valuable guidance
during the book preparation process.
Along the way many other colleagues offered their advice and sup-
port, generously shared their thoughts and work-in-progress papers and
inspired me. In no particular order I offer my sincere thanks to Annabel
J. Cohen, Zoran Erić, Ana Kotevska, Mirjana Veselinović-Hofman, John
Hill, Martin McLoone, Hilary Bracefield, Robynn Stilwell, Liz Greene,
Miguel Mera, Annette Davison, Julie Brown, Katherine Spring, Randolph
Jordan, Chris Morris, Mel Mercier, James Wierzbicki. I’m very grateful
to Gillian Anderson and Ron Sadoff for offering a first home to what
would become one of the book’s chapters, for Ron’s creative input in
assembling the figures for Chapter 8 and to both for making my annual
pilgrimage to the Music and the Moving Image conference the most
exciting event of the year. I thank Mahayana Dugast for teaching me
how to change my perception of what matters. Most of all I’m infinitely
grateful to my husband Ian for his loving support, patience, help with
endless proofreading and for making everything easier.
Earlier versions of some of the material presented in this book
appeared in ‘The Musicality of Film Rhythm’ in K. Rockett and J. Hill
(eds) National Cinema and Beyond (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2004),
113–24; ‘The Musicality of Film and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man’, Film and
Film Culture Vol. 4, 2007, 8–20; ‘A Musical Approach to Filmmaking: Hip
Hop and Techno Composing Techniques and Models of Structuring in
Darren Aronofsky’s π ’, Music and the Moving Image Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring
2008, 19–34; ‘Musical and Film Time’, Muzikologija/Musicology Vol. 8,
2008, 253–71.

Part I
The Topography of Film

‘Film is like music’, we often hear. It is one of cinema’s most enduring

analogies and is usually understood simply as a metaphor. Yet, since
its birth, film has not only been compared to music, but it has also
been explained through the use of musical terms and even conceived
and structured using music as a model. From the French school of
Impressionists to the MTV generation of directors, filmmakers as diverse
as Sergei Eisenstein, Jean-Luc Godard, Sergio Leone, David Lynch,
Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Mike Figgis and many others have
been inspired by music and stimulated to think about film in musical
terms. While it is now accepted that at the very beginning the compari-
son with music was motivated by the need to challenge the general view
of film as cheap entertainment and to demonstrate its artistic impor-
tance, what inspired this comparison in the first place is the fact that
both music and film are arts that unfold in time, generating a sense of
movement and rhythm. Over the years, various interpretations and ver-
sions of the ‘musical metaphor’ applied to film have appeared in both
theory and practice, but in the last few decades this idea received fresh
impetus thanks to a new generation of filmmakers whose notable musi-
cal sensibility is not only displayed in carefully assembled soundtracks
or musically edited sequences but also in the internal logic of their films.
However, despite its high-profile advocates among practitioners, the
idea of film musicality has never been explored with a fully-developed
theoretical argument which would justify filmmakers’ enthusiasm for
comparing film to music and provide evidence that film’s musical quali-
ties are not only metaphorical. This book intends to do precisely that by
conducting a thorough comparative analysis of the common denomina-
tors shared by these two arts – time, rhythm and movement – exploring
both the depth and the limits of the film/music analogy.

4 The Musicality of Narrative Film

To allay any scepticism I should promptly add that, while this book
examines the indisputable similarities between film and music and the
numerous ways in which they have influenced both theoretical and
practical aspects of filmmaking, I do not suggest that film, particularly
narrative film, is musical per se nor will I try to argue here that any
motion picture is musical just because it unfolds in time, creating a cer-
tain sense of movement and rhythm. The existence of common features
between music and film, however, suggests that film is potentially very
musical. This potential, which is of a composite, audio-visual nature, can
be fulfilled and enhanced by employing different filmmaking strategies
and devices such as the organization of the mise-en-scène, camera move-
ment, movement within a shot, editing, sound design and music itself.
Basically, any aspect of film’s audio-visual texture that may invest the
parameters of time, rhythm and movement with musical qualities can
be considered a carrier of film’s musicality.
At the same time, since rhythm, movement and time in film are part
of an audio-visual texture which is defined by the presence of sound
and music as much as by the content of the images, music and film
can be viewed as partners in a relationship that can be explored in both
analogous as well as interactive terms. Thus one of this book’s aims is to
maintain what I perceive to be a necessary balance between two paths of
inquiry: one which will examine the enduring idea of music as a model
for film, and the other which will address music’s role in realizing film’s
own musical potential by exploring its contribution to and influence on
film rhythm, movement and time as subjects of comparative analysis.
What is emphasized in this context are the sensual and aesthetic aspects
of film and their ability to produce the effects of fluency, immediacy
and affectiveness similar to those found in music. All this means that the
presence of music in film will be explored in this book from a perspective
that differs from the usual historical, semiotic, musicological or cultural
approaches and will instead focus on different roles that music plays in
enabling film to realize its own musical potential.
The recognition of this potential is not the sole purpose of this book.
Another aim which ranges beyond familiar topics of film music schol-
arship is to treat the soundtrack in its totality – speech and sound
effects included – as a significant and potentially as effective a source
of musicality as composed or pre-existing scores might be.1 This is only
natural considering that in the musical approach to film the notion of
music as an ingredient which is added to film in post-production to
enhance its various features has been replaced with a practice in which
Introduction 5

the boundaries between the score, sound effects, speech and noise are
significantly blurred, while also allowing editing, camera movement
or movement within the shot, narrative rhythm and acting to express
their own musical rhythm and fluency. Consequently, I will argue that
the dedicated utilization of musical principles in film not only breaks
traditional hierarchical relationships established in classical narrative
between speech, music and sound effects but has also contributed sig-
nificantly to the recent changes in contemporary cinema’s audio-visual
aesthetics, indicating a shift from the habitual segregation of the visual
and sonic aspects of film towards a practice which recognizes their inter-
dependence in realizing film’s musicality. My case studies will also show
that the dominance of musical logic in this type of approach to film can
lead to the abandonment of classical narrative rules altogether – even
when it involves directors who normally abide by them – steering the
form towards a reflexive and/or highly stylized, rhythmicized structure,
fluent movement and musicalized sound design as the most effective
vehicles for exploring the sensual side of cinema.

What is musical(ity)?

In the most basic sense, the word ‘musical’ is an adjective that describes
something relating to or producing music, but also something ‘sound-
ing pleasant and melodious’. It can also mean ‘being good at music’ for
which the psychology of music also uses the term ‘musicality’. How-
ever, even in the narrow field of music psychology the concept of
musicality can still provoke debate with questions of whether being
musical marks a creative or interpretative talent, whether the investi-
gation of musicality should focus more on acoustic properties or the
emotional side of the musical experience, whether the possession of
musical abilities presumes an understanding of musical (aesthetic) con-
tent, and so on (Revez, 1947). Moreover, the concept of ‘being musical’
supposes the existence of its antithesis in the concept of being ‘unmu-
sical’, which challenges one of the oldest views on musicality voiced
by Plato. In his Phaedo, Plato comments on musicality not as a prop-
erty of individuals but as an essential attribute of the human species.
As Zuckerkandl explains,

the implication is not that some men are musical while others are
not, but that man is a musical animal, that is, a being predisposed to
music and in need of music, a being that for its full realization must
6 The Musicality of Narrative Film

express itself in tones and owes it to itself and to the world to produce
(1976, pp. 7–8)

And one should bear in mind that Plato’s view of musicality originates
in a time before music was established as an artistic profession, let alone
a noble one.
On the other hand, the comparison with music and the use of the
words ‘musical’ and ‘musicality’ in the sense of ‘being in possession
of attributes typical of music’ are commonly used in many different
non-musical contexts. Writers as diverse as Samuel Beckett, Paul Auster,
Nick Hornby and Aaron Sorkin, for instance, have often used the musi-
cal metaphor to describe their commitment to creating melodic and
rhythmic qualities in dialogue and large-scale form. And while Auster
and Hornby often speak about the musicality of the writing process in
purely metaphorical terms,2 in The Book of Illusions Auster also describes
the acting style of the silent film actor Hector using a musical anal-
ogy. When he says that Hector’s ‘gags unfold like musical compositions,
a confluence of contrasting lines and voices’ (p. 38), this echoes a
noticeable tendency among actors to use comparisons with music when
describing certain styles of acting, especially comic ones. The performa-
tive dimension is obviously an important factor that can lend a musical
quality to spoken language – Sorkin made the same point when he said
that hearing dialogue on stage during his first visit to the theatre was like
a musical experience which he had been trying to recreate in his own
writing (Gross, 2012). And while Sorkin might have used the analogy
metaphorically, Beckett took it quite literally and reinvented modern
theatre by creating plays more concerned with the sonic and musical
qualities of language and the rhythm of its delivery than its denotative
meaning. While this resulted in a painstaking purification of language
on paper, the perceptual musical effect that Beckett strove for is ulti-
mately dependent on the precision and virtuosity of the performers who
are requested to deliver their lines at breakneck speed (Kulezic-Wilson,
Discussing the musicality of other arts or musicality in non-musical
contexts implies the possession of certain attributes that are recognized
as being typical of music, but is there a quality that can be described as
music’s specificity? The existence of diverse music traditions reminds us
that different cultures respond to different types of music. The Western
musical practice has evolved around a concept of musical time that is
completely different from those typical of Asian or African practices.
Introduction 7

Between these concepts and even within them one can recognize a num-
ber of diverse approaches to the employment of rhythm, melody and
harmony, different ranges of tastes and preferences.
It is also important to consider that the concept of musicality and the
definition of music itself are different today from what they were, for
instance, seven or eight decades ago prior to Cage’s revolutionary ideas
of including indeterminacy, noise and silence into musical pieces and
performances, the invention of electronic music, musique concrète, noise
music and so on. It is indisputable that not all these types of music
are recognized as such by the general public, so it would be wise to
admit at this stage that my personal understanding of musicality is very
broad, informed by a Western-centric musical education and ideas from
the 1950s and 1960s avant-garde which encourage us to look for music
beyond the written score and outside of the concert hall – to be open
to the idea that one can find music in sounds of nature, industrial noise
or everyday traffic. That being said, this ‘extended’ understanding of
music, while relevant when discussing the musical qualities of the film
soundtrack in its integral form (speech, music and sound effects com-
bined), is not at all essential when addressing the musicality of other
aspects of film and particularly its rhythm, movement and temporal-
ity, since these parameters are inherent to traditional concepts of music
and musicality. Therefore traditional forms of music practice present a
perfectly adequate starting point for asking the question: is there a cer-
tain quality of music which is independent of style and convention,
whether we talk about the ritual drumming of African tribes, Indian
ragas, Gregorian chants, or various forms of popular music, a quality
that makes us recognize any of these performances as music even if we
don’t necessarily respond to all of them with equal enthusiasm? What
is indisputably musical about all these music genres and traditions?
If one takes away the idiosyncrasies of various rhythmic, harmonic
and melodic approaches that are typical of different styles and tradi-
tions, what is left has certainly something to do with the kinetic and
rhythmic aspects of music, a perception of movement that is inher-
ent to the experience of listening to music. Music scholars generally
agree that music is perceived as motion even though it has proved to
be difficult to obtain a consensus on what might be the source of that
perception. Hanslick’s famous definition of music as ‘tonally moving
forms’ (1854/1986, p. 29), or ‘sounding form in motion’ (depending on
the translation of the phrase tonend-bewegte Form) has been varied many
times without being seriously disputed. Roger Sessions even gives move-
ment priority over sound (‘basic ingredient of music is not so much
8 The Musicality of Narrative Film

sound as movement’, 1962, p. 18) while for Edmund Gurney, music

is nothing less than ‘ideal motion’ (Zuckerkandl, 1973, p. 78). Or as
David Epstein (1995, p. 5) sums it up, motion may be ‘the quintessential
factor in music, the aspect of music to which all else is ultimately sub-
servient, the aspect that in turn “moves” us in our affective experience
with music’.
However, despite the general consensus that music is perceived as
motion, there is also the fact that movement in music does not really fit
into the concept of motion as defined by physics. More than that, the
movement of music does not fit into the concept of just any movement
either (more about that in Chapter 5). Rather, when Hornby, Auster and
Scorsese compare the experience of reading books, acting and watching
films with listening to music, they generally refer to the continuity of
flow that in our minds makes certain activities similar to music, and has
the same effect of immediacy. Thus, it is not only the feeling of move-
ment but the sense of effortlessness of movement and fluidity that is the
source of music’s appeal or even, as Sessions claims, the ‘essential and
inherent quality of music’ (1962, p. 66).
At the same time, the sense of flow generated by music does not
always imply the consistent kinetic drive typical of goal-oriented forms
of Western music based on tonality. We can also sense an inherently
musical type of flow in genres which produce a sense of stasis and what
Jonathan Kramer (1988) calls vertical temporality, such as minimalist
and ambient music. However, what makes the perception of music’s
movement different from any other is that it is associated with the expe-
rience of immersivity, which relates to the concept of flow developed by
the psychologist M. Csikszentmihalyi (1990). This concept refers to a
state of ‘intense yet effortless involvement in activity’ and it is charac-
terized by full concentration on the relevant stimuli, total absorption
in the activity, altered perception of time and loss of self-consciousness.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow may appear in connection with var-
ious activities, like rock climbing, sailing, dancing or performing music
and it can be so enthralling that it is almost painful to interrupt it (p. 39).
Although Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow clearly refers to an experi-
ence that originates from the personal performance of a certain activity,
I would suggest that a similar experience might also be achieved due to
the visceral and emotional responses elicited by the process of immer-
sive listening to music. In fact, the absence of self-consciousness which
characterizes the flow activity might connect with the state of absorp-
tion in any art, not only music. The fact that music in particular has
been traditionally associated with this sense of immersivity is probably
Introduction 9

one of the reasons it has been held by many in higher regard than
other arts.
Closely connected with the concept of flow is the process of trans-
formation or morphing. In the musical context these two processes
are practically inseparable from each other as the pull of music in
many ways results from the fact that its flow embodies a process of
change/movement which is generally associated with the experience of
listening to music. From the simplest musical forms which might be
based on the change of a single musical parameter to complex orchestral
textures in which the process of morphing is so palpable in every aspect
that it can be experienced on a visual or a spatial level, music brings the
sense of transformation of sound in time. Even works which empha-
size the idea of stasis and nonlinear temporality utilize the process of
morphing on some level, whether rhythmical, harmonic, melodic or
Music as flow is also connected with Bergson’s concept of temp durée
which is not endurance, Bergson insists, but is rather experienced as a
ceaseless flow: ‘a melody to which we listen with our eyes closed and
thinking about nothing else, is very close to coinciding with this time
which is the very fluidity of our inner life’ (quoted in Zuckerkandl, 1973,
p. 244). However, while time flows without sound or presence, leaving
only a possible trace in memory, the flow of music occupies the present
with its sound, anticipates the future and uses the past to reveal its
temporal Gestalt. Although as elusive as flow is by definition, music nev-
ertheless displays an ability to inspire and move that exceeds the power
of any other art. At the same time that very fluidity is what invites the
comparison between film and music.
The notion of film musicality, however, is not widely recognized
in film practice or scholarship and is certainly not characteristic of
the mainstream film industry. Apart from Noël Burch’s Theory of Film
Practice (1969/1973), which explores the influence of the concepts of
atonality and musical serialism on cinema, and David Bordwell’s arti-
cle on film/music analogies from 1980, film theory has not paid much
attention to the practice of adopting musical principles in filmmaking.
Its cause was certainly not helped by the fact that in the same year
in which Bordwell’s article called for the ‘persistence’ of the musical
analogy, Burch expressed ‘embarrassment’ with his theory in his for-
ward to the second edition of Theory of Film Practice in English (1981,
pp. vi–vii), denouncing its formalism, elitisms, ‘musicalism’ and ‘flight
from meaning’. It is maybe no surprise then that, even though this direc-
tion has been identified by other scholars as a potentially rich source
10 The Musicality of Narrative Film

of knowledge about film (Cook, 1998; Donnelly, 2013, 2014), hardly

any research has been done in this area. If the significance of music
for film has begun to be recognized in the last few decades, it has pri-
marily come from scholarship focused on the role of music within a
narrative. However, the connections between music and film are more
subtle and complex than those that can be identified by the analysis of
a film’s diegetic or non-diegetic music and its narrative functions. The
fact that film shares the features of time, rhythm and movement with
music suggests that the depth and nature of that connection surpass
the interactive relationship between visual content and the music that
accompanies it. It also provides the opportunity to explore the actual
degree of correspondence between these two arts.
Comparison of the common parameters between music and film also
includes applying some musical criteria to film in order to examine how
much certain characteristics typical of music can be found in different
creative processes of filmmaking and in the final product. And since film
is an audio-visual medium that includes music as part of its content and
structure, an exploration of the interactive relationships between music
and film has to be part of the equation. I see these comparative and
interactive aspects of analysis as complementary because the former pro-
vides the theoretical basis for exploring film’s musical potential, while
the latter addresses the matter of realizing that potential. I believe that
this conceptual framework supplies an empirically sound foundation for
investigating the idea of film musicality without being too constraining,
as focusing on one particular method of analysis would be. I also argue
that both the investigation of interactive and comparative relationships
between film and music can be elucidated with the single model of

The musicality of film as metaphor

In attempting to illuminate features of one concept by comparing it to

another, metaphor presents itself as a natural model. Lakoff and Johnson
(1980) argue that the metaphorical conceptual system unites reason and
imagination, providing the experiential perspective of the world which
they call imaginative rationality. By explaining one thing in terms of
another, metaphor encourages an imaginative understanding of cate-
gories that are by definition difficult to comprehend totally: our feelings,
moral practices, spiritual awareness and – particularly important in this
case – aesthetic experiences.
Introduction 11

Nicholas Cook uses the same concept to provide an illuminat-

ing explanation of the nature of interactive relationships created
in multimedia combinations of arts. In his book Analysing Musical
Multimedia, Cook argues that the relationship between different artistic
media, which includes the relationship between film and music within
a film, is interactive in a way similar to the relationship between the
elements of metaphor in the sense that, rather than simply representing
or reproducing an existing meaning, it participates in the creation of a
new one (1998, pp. 70–1). As in a metaphor, the emergence of a new
meaning arises from the intersection between different media and the
corresponding transfer of their attributes.
Although different art media focus on different senses, art works often
provide new ways of structuring both our sensual and intellectual expe-
riences. According to Roger Scruton, the very experience of music is
inseparable from the concept of metaphor:

It seems then that in our most basic apprehension of music there

lies a complex system of metaphor, which is the true description of
no material fact. And the metaphor cannot be eliminated from the
description of music, because it is integral to the intentional object
of musical experience. Take this metaphor away and you take away
the experience of music.
(1983, p. 85)

Although Lakoff and Johnson (1980, p. 154) argue that ‘the only kind
of similarities relevant to metaphors are experiential, not objective simi-
larities’, this does not make the metaphorical nature of the film/music
comparison any less valuable or ‘real’, since metaphor is one of the basic
forms of the human conceptual system. Opening links between con-
cepts, as in metaphor, allows the perception of new aspects of things.
As Aristotle said, ‘ordinary words convey only what we know already; it
is from metaphor that we can best get hold of something fresh’ (quoted
in Lakoff and Johnson, 1980, p. 190). Correspondingly, the conceptual
framework of this book is based on the assumption that comparing film
to music can reveal certain new aspects of it, highlight some obscure or
neglected elements of film as an intermedia form, or provide a new way
of thinking about some familiar issues. And even though the compar-
ative analysis of music and film in this book is in many aspects based
on connections that are more actual than metaphorical, the underly-
ing nature of the comparative method in general invites us to value
12 The Musicality of Narrative Film

the metaphorical experience as one of the most insightful conceptual

approaches to knowing.

Musical poetics of film

Regarding its concerns with film’s stylistic and aesthetic issues, this
book relates to the concept of David Bordwell’s historical poetics he
proposed in the conclusion of his book Making Meaning. Conscious
of a sometimes insular interpretation of the Aristotelian meaning of
the term, Bordwell (1989, p. 273) insists that poetics is neither an
‘ “approach,” like myth criticism or deconstruction’ nor ‘ “theory” like
psychoanalysis or Marxism’. Rather, ‘it is a conceptual framework within
which particular questions about film’s composition and effects can
be posed’. The difference in this case, of course, is that instead of the
historical context that Bordwell’s poetics insists on, my exploration of
film’s creative processes finds its conceptual framework in the compar-
ison with music. Although I believe that this book addresses aspects of
film that have been overlooked by the dominant theoretical approaches
and methodologies, my ambitions are not at all historical and I will not
try to present a comprehensive or chronological account of attempts
to create film modelled on or influenced by music. My approach will
instead concentrate on the examination of the common parameters of
film and music in order to identify the sources of film’s musical potential
as well as the methods and devices with which that potential is realized
in contemporary practice.
Although conscious that formalism has not been the hottest ticket
in film-theory town for quite a while, to put it mildly, I cannot ignore
the fact that however indispensable other approaches and methodolo-
gies are, none of them – including mine – have an all-encompassing
reach nor do they offer all the answers. Scholarly trends – like most
other aspects of human activity – tend to shift in a see-saw manner:
saturation with one line of thinking will usually bring the espousal of
its opposite and complete renunciation of what came before. Naturally,
this attitude can only be useful for certain purposes and a limited period
of time. What I find most troublesome about the present scholarly cli-
mate is the tendency to ignore the fact that in addition to its cultural,
social and ideological meanings and purposes, art also responds to our
more esoteric needs. Art is indeed representative of social and cultural
practices, it can be treated as a commodity or used as a political tool,
but that does not mean that it is not sought out for its aesthetic pur-
poses as well. This book strives to address this aspect of film and the
Introduction 13

affective pleasures it can bring to audiences, but it won’t try to ‘fly from
meaning’ or overlook the ideological implications of discussed practices.
Nevertheless, the vital aesthetic question that needs to be addressed in
a comparative analysis of the two arts is how rather than what. This
context positions film and music as equal subjects of investigation, the
questions and aims of which can transcend the differences inherent to
their respective media. And only after answering these initial questions
is it possible to proceed with the main questions of this book: what kind
of film can be called ‘musical’; how does a film gain its musicality; what
is the role of music within a film in pursuit of this aim; and how does
its musicality influence the general impact of a film?
By exploring the work of filmmakers who assign great importance to
music in different stages of the creative process, this book also relates
to Claudia Gorbman’s (2007) concept of ‘auteur music’. However, it is
essential to emphasize here that the significance of music in the work
of the directors who will be discussed in this book, and especially in the
case studies, goes beyond music’s use as an inspiration and a ‘platform
for the idiosyncratic expression of taste’ (Gorbman, 2007, p. 151) to
include its application as a model for film’s internal logic. Nevertheless,
as Arved Ashby points out (2013, p. 17), by identifying music as the
‘key thematic element and a marker of authorial style’ of directors she
calls mélomanes, Gorbman in the process ‘comes close to redefining the
auteur construct, re-emergent and commodified, as a form of music-
making rather than an art of filmmaking’.
The filmography of my book, however, is not limited to auteur-based
practice or to any other specific practice for that matter. It cuts across
all categories relating to genre, nationality, source of funding or any
other common parameter of film classification, imposing the signifi-
cance of musical influence and its perceptibility in the final product
as the exclusive criteria for selection. These criteria, however, will be
applied and examined in the context of narrative cinema only, even
though one could reasonably argue that avant-garde, non-narrative cin-
ema provides much richer and more suitable material for this kind of
exploration, because even the sceptics of film musicality wouldn’t hes-
itate to acknowledge the influence of music on the fluently composed
films of, for instance, the French film Impressionists, Oskar Fischinger,
Stan Brakhage, Len Lye or Bill Viola.3 Nevertheless, while those and
many more of the works by animators, avant-garde filmmakers and
multimedia artists were undoubtedly inspired by and guided by music,
and deserve a similar kind of study, their contribution has generally
been confined to the margins of accessible, widely distributed cinema
14 The Musicality of Narrative Film

or to art galleries, thus having little chance to generate significant influ-

ence on the field of narrative filmmaking where my interests and the
challenge of this book lie.
Searching for musicality in narrative cinema, though, also means that
mainstream films will be much less represented than American indepen-
dent and European ones simply because the ideas of film musicality have
never found particularly fertile ground in the Hollywood practice based
on classical conventions. One of the reasons for this is that the princi-
ples of classical Hollywood inherited by the mainstream – the supremacy
of the story and the continuity style of editing that was invented to sup-
port it – are mainly incompatible with a practice more concerned with
film style and aesthetics than with representational aspects of narrative.
Another reason is that in mainstream cinema, music is still treated as an
added ingredient addressed in the last stages of post-production while
the ideas and principles of film musicality have been instrumental in
establishing music as an integral part of the audio-visual structure of
film. In fact, most of the examples that I will discuss in this book show
that the employment of musical principles usually involves breaking
many of the habitual hierarchical relationships established in classical
narrative, not only between sound and image but also between speech
and sound effects, visual composition and narration, and so on.
Several overlapping aspects and potential agendas have been men-
tioned so far, and the reason is simply that they are all part of this
subject in one way or another. A comprehensive exploration of the sub-
ject of film’s musicality involves investigating the relationship between
film and music as autonomous arts (the film/music analogy); the inter-
active relationship between a film and the music used within it; and the
idea of music as either an abstract or a concrete inspiration and model
for the creation and structuring of film. The exploration of a subject of
such complexity resembles in a way the creation of a cubist portrait,
which results in a rather eclectic and inclusive methodology involving
music and film theory, textual analysis, Gestalt and cognitive psychol-
ogy, the philosophy of time and aesthetics, which has been largely and
conspicuously absent from film music scholarship since the 1950s.
This exposition of my main intentions begs the question, does this
agenda advocate the (Romantic) ideology of music’s supremacy? Taking
into account that the comparison here is mostly one-sided, explor-
ing the ways in which film is similar to music but not the other way
around, and considering the underlying suggestion that film aspires
to be music, does this book imply the superiority of music, which is
generally identified as an inherently Romantic idea?
Introduction 15

The shortest answer is ‘no’, because the motive for writing this book
was not to propose that music is a more important or more sophisticated
art than film, nor do I have the intention of suggesting that films that
can be called ‘musical’ are by definition better than any other films.
However, some of the implications of both these ideas will inevitably
be voiced in the course of the book for two reasons: the first is that
those directors and filmmakers whose work is deeply inspired by music
themselves consider music a model worth aspiring to; the other reason
is that their attempts to ‘compose on screen’ in many cases produce
results that distinguish them from a common Hollywood product in
the neighbourhood multiplex. Regarding the tendency to dismiss the
notion of music as the supreme model for arts as an atavism of Romantic
‘musical imperialism’,4 I will try to challenge it in the following chapter
by showing that this idea has been behind some of the most distinc-
tive modernist ideas of the last century. Even if the origin of the idea is
Romantic, its continued presence in 20th-century arts, and particularly
the influence it has on film – the effect of which is discussed in this
book – show that this idea is not outdated.
The first step in exploring how the idea of film musicality has affected
contemporary film practice is to provide a historical context for the per-
sisting analogy between music and film. Chapter 2 looks at the ideas
that have contributed to this discourse and explores the concept of film’s
musical potential, its relationship with film music practice and the pos-
sibilities of achieving film musicality in the context of a visually biased
culture. The final section of this chapter examines the role of music
video in reviving the notion of film’s musicality in a contemporary
Chapters 3, 4, 5 and 6 are clustered in Part II because they all
explore analogies between music and film through a thorough ana-
lytical investigation of their common parameters: rhythm, movement
and time.
Chapters 3 and 4 emphasize the ubiquitous nature of rhythm as a
phenomenon which is deeply involved in structuring our reality and
in the processes of communication and self-expression, while also pre-
senting rhythm as a universal parameter that can cut across different
music and film traditions and genres. The division of this topic into two
chapters acknowledges the dual function of rhythm as a constitutive
and a structural parameter of all arts, as vital in the organization of single
shots/scenes as in the conception of form on the macro level. Chapter 3
applies musical knowledge about rhythm in order to uncover different
aspects of film rhythm and their musical qualities in the context of the
16 The Musicality of Narrative Film

aesthetics of the shot and the cut. This is followed by Chapter 4 which
argues for recognizing the importance of structural rhythm in the pro-
cess of creating an immersive form and demonstrates how the devices
of repetition and patterning, which are typically associated with musical
composition, help create rhythmic form in film.
Chapter 5 emphasizes similarities between the perception of move-
ment in music and in film respectively and explores the musical prop-
erties of camera movement, movement within a shot and movement
created by editing. While the chapters about rhythm and movement are
mostly founded on the exploration of phenomena which are responsi-
ble for experiencing the musicality of film in a sensuous way, Chapter 6
steps into more abstract waters, dealing with the perennially elusive
topic of time and the way it manifests itself in music and film. The inves-
tigation of linear, nonlinear and multiple temporalities in both arts, and
the aesthetic and philosophical issues associated with them, deals with
notions of musicality in the context of the most recent theories of time
and demonstrates how a preference for a certain philosophical approach
to time results in similar aesthetic choices in both music and film.
All the theoretical concepts in these chapters are tested on specific
film examples, illustrating the musicality of prominent aspects of film
form – narrative rhythm, the rhythm of editing, movement within a
shot, camera movement and so on – while simultaneously addressing
the ideological and aesthetic dimensions of this practice. Even though
the issues of rhythm, macro-rhythm, movement and time are exam-
ined in individual chapters, I argue throughout the book that these
parameters cannot act in isolation. In the same way that rhythm can be
understood as just another aspect/expression of movement, so it is obvi-
ous that neither movement nor rhythm can be viewed in isolation from
time. While this causes certain overlaps between the chapters in Part II,
I believe that they are in no way redundant but are rather quite useful
in illuminating the interdependent nature of the parameters under dis-
cussion. Their interconnectedness is further demonstrated in the case
studies in Part III which take the discussion from individual parameters
to explore, through in-depth analysis, how various factors contribute to
achieving the effect of musicality in a large-scale form. The choice of
three very different films also makes it evident how contrasting treat-
ments of film time, rhythm and kinesis can create very different yet
effective examples of film musicality.
The case studies of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) and Darren
Aronofsky’s π (1998) embody the contrast between the opposing aes-
thetics of the shot and the cut respectively: while the rhythmic pulse
Introduction 17

of Dead Man stems from the filmmaker’s intrinsically musical approach

to patterns of micro and macro organization and the use of silence, π ’s
groundbreaking musical approach to the editing of image and sound
was influenced by techno culture and hip hop techniques of sampling,
punching and rupturing the flow with unexpected breaks. The third case
study, Joe Wright’s adaptation of Anna Karenina (2012), was chosen as a
unique example of the musical approach to film which combines reflex-
ive cinematic language with the influences of contemporary theatre and
ballet. In Wright’s film, the fundamental attributes of musicality – flow
and morphing – are applied as dominant principles of the film’s highly
stylized language involving choreography, camera movement, editing,
mise-en-scène and sound design in order to illuminate social and moral
themes of the story and the protagonists’ subjective points of view.
What I hope these case studies will demonstrate is that the ways of real-
izing film’s musical potential can be as varied as the individual styles
of the filmmakers that adopt them because there are as many musical
approaches to film as there are types of music.
Music as Model and Metaphor

The tendency to elevate music to the status of a model for another art is
not specific to film and has a very long history. Although the notion of
music as the greatest art to which all other arts aspire has often been
regarded as distinctly Romantic, music has always held a rather spe-
cial place in the history of human culture. Abstract, perishable and yet
extremely powerful, music has had all sorts of attributes and meanings
ascribed to it. Its elusiveness has allowed music to become a Rorschach
test of human civilization onto which artists, writers and scientists have
projected the most current and daring ideas of their times, including an
explanation of the universe1 and the idea of music as a measure of all
other arts.
This chapter will further illuminate the idea of film musicality by pro-
viding a broader historical context for its origins and by exploring its
relationship with film music practice. While a theory of film musicality
in narrative film is practically non-existent, the conceptual origins of
the idea itself can be traced to various sources involving the history of
arts, philosophy and popular culture. As my contention is that the tra-
dition of ‘visual music’ that originates in the avant-garde and animated
cinema has had limited influence outside the world of museums and
art galleries, and that the recent expansion of film musicality in narra-
tive film owes more to the influence of music video than avant-garde
film, instead of providing a detailed historical overview of all musical
tendencies in cinema I will focus instead on charting the main ideas
and approaches that paved the way for advancing the principles of film
musicality in contemporary narrative film.

Tracing the origins of contemporary film/music analogies

The Romantic era is often cited as the ultimate age of music’s supremacy
and the fact that music was considered to represent the other-worldly

Music as Model and Metaphor 19

ideal of spiritual and aesthetic purity is in no small measure to do with

the philosophical writings of that time. In 1798 Friedrich Schlegel stated
that music is ‘the highest of all arts . . . Every art has musical principles
and when it is completed it becomes itself music. This is true even of
philosophy,’ (quoted in Goehr and Bowie, 2001, p. 614). The idea was
affirmed almost a century later by Walter Pater’s famous remark that
‘all arts constantly aspire to the condition of music’ (quoted in Goehr
and Bowie, 2001, p. 614). The time span between these two famous
statements and Romantic philosophy itself are marked by music play-
ing a prominent role in most of the serious attempts to understand the
world and the purpose of art in it. Schopenhauer’s thoughts about the
universality of music and its relation ‘to the true nature of all things’
(1969, p. 262) in particular struck a chord with the spirit of his age
and had a remarkable impact on the history of music. Wagner admitted
that reading Schopenhauer was a decisive moment in his intellectual
and musical development, strongly influencing his concepts of musical
drama. At the same time, when Schopenhauer explains music’s ability
to ‘express the metaphysical to everything physical in the world’ and
says ‘when music suitable to any scene, action, event, or environment is
played, it seems to disclose to us its most secret meanings, and appears
to be the most accurate and distinct commentary on it’ (p. 262), it reads
as a very precise description of the role music is ascribed in film too.
It would be inaccurate, however, to associate the ideas of music’s
supremacy exclusively with the philosophy and art of Romanticism,
because they can be followed far into the 20th century and to the
heart of modernist ideas, inspiring the birth of abstract art, innovative
approaches to language, theatre and, finally, film. Vassily Kandinsky,
for instance, is one of those artists whose work became emblematic of
the revolutionary ideas of 20th-century art. Yet Kandinsky’s concepts
of art and of the ‘spiritual in art’ were deeply influenced by German
Idealist and Romantic philosophy (Kant, Schelling, Schopenhauer) and
Wagner’s ideas of Gesamtkunstwerk. The Schopenhauerian view of music
as the only art which reveals ‘the true nature of all things’ also influ-
enced Beckett’s groundbreaking treatment of language which favoured
musical over denotative properties and revolutionized theatre by pri-
oritizing the experiential and musical effects of grunts, gestures and
silences over the semiotic function of language.
Since temporality and rhythm were promptly recognized and utilized
by the pioneers of abstract art as the common denominators for music
and painting, the establishing of the comparative relationship between
music and pictures that were ‘moving’ seems to have been an inevitable
20 The Musicality of Narrative Film

occurrence in the early age of cinema. As it became quickly obvious

that the experience of watching the first silent films was immensely
improved if accompanied by music, the first projections with obliga-
tory piano in a movie theatre marked the beginning of a new, symbiotic
relationship between music and film which would continue to evolve
with the introduction of sound. At the same time, music spontaneously
emerged as a natural inspiration for the creation of abstract film and
as a model for achieving its artistic autonomy. This idea of music as a
supreme model for film, both in the traditions of abstract and represen-
tational filmmaking, was based on the sometimes intuitive, sometimes
rational belief that the attributes of temporality and movement, which
are shared by both arts, could enable film to achieve the same kind of
fluency and affectiveness as music.
In the 1920s and 1930s it seemed natural to the French film
Impressionists to compare the ‘dance of light’ in silent pictures to the
sense of movement produced by music, and they made a good case for
the recognition of film’s autonomy by comparing it to an art held in
such awe:

In the composition of a film we find the same laws as those governing

the composition of a symphony. This is no figure of speech, it is a
tangible reality. A well-composed film instinctively obeys the most
classical criteria from academic treatises on composition.
(Emile Vuillermoz quoted in Mitry, 2000, p. 217)

Abel Gance, one of the leading figures of this school, stated that ‘there
are two kinds of music – the music of sound and the music of light [the
cinema]’ while Germaine Dulac added that ‘the pure film we all dream
of making is a visual symphony of rhythmic images’ (both quoted in
Mitry, 2000, pp. 208–9). However, for artists like Dulac (Thèmes et varia-
tions, 1928), Fernand Léger (Ballet mécanique, 1924) and Henri Chomette
(Cinq minutes de cinéma pur, 1925) the idea of film musicality was pre-
dominantly based on the practice of silent and often non-narrative
experimental films. Narrative was regarded as an obstacle to be over-
come, whereas the imminent reality of sound was considered to be a
threat to film’s rhythmic and ‘musical’ potential. Their German col-
leagues who shared the same enthusiasm for using music as a model for
film – Walter Ruttman (Opus 1, 2, 3, 4, 1921–1925) and Oscar Fischinger
(An Optical Poem, 1938) – felt less threatened by the transition of silent
cinema to sound. Their pioneering experiments in musical animation
established the foundations for the tradition of visual music practised
Music as Model and Metaphor 21

later by artists such as Norman McLaren (Boogie Doodle, 1948), Len Lye
(A Colour Box, 1935) and Jordan Belson (Mambo, 1952).
German psychologist-turned-film-theorist Hugo Münsterberg also
used the comparison with music to suggest the potential of film as an
independent art form and to stress its non-representational qualities.
In his book The Photoplay (1916/2002), which is regarded by many as
the first serious example of film theory, he wrote:

But we come nearer to the understanding of [film’s] true position in

the aesthetic world if we think at the same time of . . . the art of the
musical tones. They have overcome the outer world and the social
world entirely, they unfold our inner life, our mental play, with its
feelings and emotions, its memories and fancies, in a material which
seems exempt from the laws of the world of substance and material,
tones which are fluttering and fleeting like our own mental states.
(2002, p. 127)

The most influential among filmmakers interested in the musical

aspects of film in its formative decades was Sergei Eisenstein, who
continuously employed musical analogies to explain his innovative the-
oretical concepts and applied those ideas in both his silent and sound
films. His principles of rhythmical, melodic and tonal synchronization
rely on musical terminology for articulating the nuanced relationship
between music and image2 while his concept of vertical montage uses
principles of musical scoring as a model for establishing unity between
them. In Eisenstein’s ‘film score’ the horizontal levels are embodied in
the parallel progression of the aural and the visual, while the vertical
is seen as the integration of all elements into the same interdepen-
dent relationships that exist between the vertical and horizontal aspects
of a musical structure. He even thought about silent film in musical
terms, envisioning it as a complex polyphonic network of interactive
elements governed by the principle of polyphonic montage.3 Wagner’s
concept of Gesamtkunstwerk was one of Eisenstein’s many inspirations
in devising his overarching concepts of film, except of course that in
the new medium of film the idea of a fusion of different arts into a
total audio-visual work was now able to attain a level more sophisticated
than Wagner could ever imagine.4 During the 1950s and 1960s, the idea
of creating a film by employing the principles of musical composition
was revived again in France, as a result of the far-reaching influences of
integral serialism in music. At this stage film no longer needed the com-
parison with music to support the notion of its artistic self-sufficiency.
22 The Musicality of Narrative Film

However, the principles of ‘total organization’ of musical parameters

were so alluring to artistic circles in France that they inspired the writer
Alain Robbe-Grillet and the director Alain Resnais to apply them to cin-
ema, resulting in an approach to storytelling that David Bordwell (1997)
calls ‘parametric narration’. The product of their collaboration, L’année
dernière à Marienbad (1961), became a symbol of the modernist influence
on cinema and was soon followed by similar alliances between French
poets, directors and composers, while Noël Burch gave the trend a the-
oretical framework in his book Theory of Film Practice (1969/1973), in
which he proposes a theory of film form using the concepts of atonality
and serialism.
The idea of parametric narration in cinema did not survive long,
though, and the notion of music as a model for film disappeared from
the radar of contemporary film studies, recognized only by so-called
formalists. In his article from 1980, Bordwell discusses the significance
of ‘the musical analogy’ through the comparison of Eisenstein’s and
Burch’s theoretical approaches, pronouncing Burch’s theory as more
comprehensive since it encourages the understanding of film form as
‘the complex relations created by several patterns’, in which the fusion
of formal constituents is only one of the options. He concludes that,
‘if we want to know how cinema may work upon the social and the
suprasocial, the musical analogy must persist, for it crystallizes the drive
of film form toward multiple systems’ (p. 156). References to music are
also employed in Bordwell and Thompson’s discussions of film form
in Film Art: An Introduction, which recognizes the use of motifs, repeti-
tions and variations as compositional devices emblematic for both arts
(1993, pp. 41–60). Bordwell and Thompson’s use of the musical anal-
ogy in explaining the importance of repetition in controlling formal
expectations prompted music psychologist Annabel J. Cohen (2002) to
argue that research in music cognition can be fruitfully applied to pro-
vide an insight into the psychology of film form. Insisting that film
theory has neglected the most important aspect of film perception –
the effects of repeated structures – Cohen claims that ‘the sensory ori-
gin of multimedia information becomes less relevant at higher levels
of analysis’ (p. 228). Cohen also states that ‘what cognitive research
reveals about higher-order structure in one domain of art will inform
understanding of others’ (p. 228), which is exactly the reasoning that
underpins the theoretical discussion in the following four chapters
exploring analogies between temporal, rhythmical and kinetic features
of film and music.
The ethos of the musical approach to film is in a way also mirrored in
the theoretical/analytical concept of mise-en-bande, which was presented
Music as Model and Metaphor 23

by Altman, Jones and Tatroe (2000) as the acoustical equivalent to mise-


Just as image analysis benefited from introduction of the compar-

ative and relational notion of mise-en-scène, or ‘putting onto the
stage’, so understanding of the soundtrack requires the concept
of mise-en-bande, or ‘putting on the sound track’. Mise-en-scène
analysis foregrounds relationships among image components; mise-
en-bande analysis concentrates on the interaction among the various
components making up the soundtrack. (p. 341)

As presented by Altman, Jones and Tatroe, along with a new nota-

tional system for transcribing all aspects of a soundtrack, the concept of
mise-en-bande acts mostly as a recommendation for the comprehensive
analysis of sound. James Buhler (2001, p. 58), though, recognizes greater
aesthetic potential in this concept when saying that in its ‘interplay of
music, dialogue, ambient sound, effects, silences and so forth . . . [mise-
en-bande] is best understood – as a kind of musical “composition” ’.
Buhler suggests that the analysis of a soundtrack as a whole, its rela-
tionship to the image and its contribution not just to the narrative but
to the act of narration itself offers ‘the most “musical” way’ of reading
film, an approach which is fully embraced by this book.
Beside theory, practice and cognitive psychology, this paradigm of
music as a model for film has also infiltrated the discourse of film and
music aesthetics, as in the work of Flo Leibowitz (1997), who points
to Stephen Davies’ theory of expressiveness in music as a way of under-
standing the expressiveness of the cinematic image. The most important
aspect of this theory for Leibowitz is Davies’ claim that recognizing the
expressiveness of music is not necessarily implying personal agency as
its source. In the same way music can be perceived as sad or cheerful by
virtue of the sound itself, so a particular scene or sequence can generate
a sense of excitement, playfulness or crisis by virtue of the employed
devices such as camera movement, slow motion or colour scheme.
Leibowitz argues (1997, p. 340) that Davies’ approach, which ‘treats the
qualities of the expressive object as real qualities of the object’ avail-
able to our sensory equipment, is the model more appropriate than any
other for understanding the expressiveness of the cinematic image. One
might have reservations about Leibowitz’s essentialist approach but his
analogy is worth considering here since it elucidates once more the dual
relationship between music and film emphasized in this book: while
the expressiveness of the cinematic image might be compared to that of
24 The Musicality of Narrative Film

music, it is also music within film that contributes to creating or enhanc-

ing those expressive qualities. The history of film musicality, however, is
not the history of film music and while the presence of music has often
enabled the realization of film’s musical potential, most dominant scor-
ing practices have often had quite the opposite effect, as we will see in
the next section.

Film’s musical potential and contemporary film music


During most of its history, the general notion of film music in both
theory and practice was the one inherited from the silent era, accord-
ing to which film music is perceived as an addition to rather than an
integral part of a film. If this fallacy has begun to be remedied in film
music theory due to a recent surge of books examining the nature of
the music/image relationship,5 the consequences of this long-term mis-
conception have nevertheless had a very damaging influence on the
general view of music’s role and its employment within film. The visual
bias of cinema culture, negative aspects of the compartmentalized treat-
ment of dialogue, sound effects and music in post-production and the
notoriously late involvement of the composer in the production pro-
cess have been commented on many times in literature (Altman, 1985;
Metz, 1985; Davison, 2004) and don’t need further elaboration here.
However, full knowledge of the shortcomings of this practice does not
change the fact that most of the music composed and placed in film
by these standards relies on the automatic employment of the conven-
tions of narrative cueing devised to produce predictable responses. The
fact that so many scores in the history of music managed to escape
the impression of being produced on an assembly line is a miracle
in itself and a testament to the talent and dedication of many com-
posers who wrote hours of music under considerable time-pressure and
yet still managed to provide films with musical moments of genuine
depth or emotion. Nevertheless, the compartmentalized and ‘industri-
alized’ approach to film and film scoring is very unlikely to result in
a ‘musically conceived’ film, which is one of the reasons why neither
mainstream cinema nor classical Hollywood are places where exam-
ples of musicality can easily be found. Being less burdened by studio
practices, European, Asian and American independent directors have
generally been more prone to experimenting with sound and music,
occasionally even reviving the idea of music as a model for film. From
the ‘Statement’ issued by Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Alexandrov in 1928
Music as Model and Metaphor 25

that proposed a contrapuntal use of sound in film, through exercises

in parametric narration in France in the late 1950s and 1960s, Jean-
Luc Godard’s overt references to musical inspirations in films such as
Vivre sa vie (1962), Pierrot le fou (1965)6 and Prénom: Carmen (1983),7
‘operatic’ showdowns and the musical treatment of sound effects in
Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns,8 and Stanley Kubrick’s inspired use
of pre-existing music,9 European cinema has consistently been a more
reliable source of non-conventional film practices informed by music.
However, it was Godard’s revolutionary approach to soundtrack and
film form in general,10 rather than his ideas of film musicality, which
in the 1970s caught the attention of the new generation of American
filmmakers who would recognize film’s musical potential in narrative
film. Particularly influential in this sense was the collaboration of editor
and sound designer Walter Murch with Francis Ford Coppola in films
such as The Godfather I–III (1972/1974/1990), The Conversation (1974)
and Apocalypse Now (1979). By occupying the rare position of both edi-
tor and sound specialist, and inclined to regard every aspect of a shot
or a scene as a line in a dense contrapuntal texture of audio-visual
movements and rhythms, Murch developed sound design and editing
techniques of an inherently musical nature. His approach of letting ‘the
music, sound and visual effects into the process early, before the film
has “set” ’, to ‘give them the opportunity to influence the film’ (quoted
in Bricknell, 2005, p. 135), became one of the main features of the
approach that became known as the ‘Bay Area sound’.11
Fortunately, the collaboration between Coppola and Murch, which
produced groundbreaking results in sound and image editing, did not
remain the sole exception in Hollywood. The work of David Lynch with
Alan Splet, another member of the Bay Area Sound, demonstrated that
the expressive power of sound could be pushed much further than any-
one would have associated with commercial narrative film. After the
worldwide success of Blue Velvet (1986) in particular, Lynch’s essentially
maverick approach to narrative and image/sound relationships became
one of the most influential among those directors determined to explore
the depths of film’s sonic and musical potential. Significantly in this
context, Lynch’s interest in music goes beyond its role in the narrative:
he famously plays music on set to create the mood and establish the
pace for his Director of Photography, or has music playing in his head-
phones during the shoot (quoted in Rodley, 2005, p. 133), because he
believes that ‘with sequences paced correctly, and the sound and the pic-
ture working together, it [film] becomes like music’ (Lynch, 2003, p. 52).
26 The Musicality of Narrative Film

Away from the tensions between the studio-based practices and

auteurist ambitions of European and New Hollywood directors in the
early 1970s, Noël Burch identified Japanese cinema as an important
source of a creative use of music and sound compatible with the notion
of film’s musicality, while emphasizing intrinsic differences between the
audio-visual and musical cultures in Asian and Western cinema. Using
the example of Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Crucified Lovers (1954), Burch
argues that the organic interaction between sound effects and music, as
well as their structural use in this film, were primarily possible because
of the ‘open’ quality of Japanese traditional music whose ‘freer flow’ is
‘an empirical quality closer to that of the film image’ (1973, pp. 94–9).
Another aspect of Asian or, more precisely, Zen-Buddhist culture that
can be credited with an imaginative approach to scoring – which would
also find its admirers in the trenches of American independent cinema –
is the concept of ma which recognizes silence as a complementary part
of sound. As Toru Takemitsu explains: ‘The listener who appreciates
this refined sound, the unique idea of ma – the unsounded part of
experience – has at the same time a deep, powerful, and rich resonance
that can stand up to the sound,’ (quoted in Mera, 2001, p. 1).
Since Burch wrote his book, a lot has changed in the landscape of
global cinema. Once hailed by international critics as the main cine-
matic force in that part of the world, Japanese cinema is today only
a segment of a film culture which boasts myriad practices from Eastern,
Southeastern and Southern Asia. The currents of globalization and cross-
fertilization that created the modern landscape of post-national cinema
erased many lines between once distinctive traditions and practices,
including those between Asian and Hollywood cinemas. While the
former is no longer a stranger to the Hollywood conventions of nar-
rative cueing in scoring, the latter has eagerly adopted the influences of
Hong Kong and Chinese martial arts in its action films. Thus recently
we witnessed in both traditions the birth of a new breed of action film
that combines the musical elegance of martial arts choreography and
Hollywood’s glossy production to create an innovative cinematic lan-
guage immersed in music. From the almost weightless balletic duels
in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000), Hero (Yimou Zhang,
2002) and House of Flying Daggers (Yimou Zhang, 2004), to the more
high-tech clashes in The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers, 1999) and Kill
Bill vol. 1 (Tarantino, 2003), these films use expressive gestures, chore-
ographed actions, rapid editing, amplified sound effects and music in
order to produce a new type of audio-visual kinesis. With their virtu-
osic and imaginative combinations of film’s sonic and visual kinetic
Music as Model and Metaphor 27

attributes the action scenes here are the closest that non-abstract, non-
experimental, narrative film can get to conveying a physical sensation
usually evoked by musical rhythm or movement.
The influence of the musical approach to film has become even more
apparent in different strands of non-Hollywood cinema which have
appeared gradually over the last three decades. It seems in a way ironic
that, while music has given up its own autonomy to provide film with a
sense of temporal continuity and to fulfil its narrative and affective func-
tions within film, the principles inherent to a musical way of thinking
have started to penetrate certain aspects of film itself, resulting in exam-
ples of filmmaking in which narrative, audio-visual structure and kinetic
flow are developed either by a logic that can be compared to the proce-
dures of musical composition, or by following the blueprint of concrete
musical forms. This ‘internalization’ of musical influences is generally
preceded by music’s presence in the processes of production and pre-
production. Music has been used as an inspiration for a film’s mood or
location, for writing a screenplay and as a template for a film’s structure.
It has been used during production for staging and shooting scenes, or
in post-production for providing the rhythm of editing.
The influence of music on the creation of certain films is so palpable
that it is even possible to identify particular musical styles or genres in
their genetic material. Since the early attempts of film Impressionists to
emulate the rhythmic structure and immediacy of music forms, film his-
tory has seen a fair number of film rondos, sonatas, symphonies, themes
with variations, interludes, preludes and fugues, although in most cases
their musical allusions were limited to the title. In other cases the musi-
cal influences of classical forms are apparent in structure rather than
title, such as in Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962), which follows
the model of a theme with variations, or Mike Figgis’ Timecode (2000)
which is conceived as an audio-visual fugue, dividing the screen into
four parts, successively introducing four separate story-lines and then
following them in parallel and stretto. The evocation of classical musical
forms can also be the result of a complex set of audio-visual strategies,
as in Joe Wright’s adaptation of Anna Karenina (2012) which uses chore-
ography, devices typical of total theatre and seamless editing to induce
a continuous sense of flow supported by the film’s waltzing score.
Presto combinations of pumping music, swift camera movement and
editing are generally associated with the MTV generation of directors
and the pervasive presence of popular music – mostly pop and rock –
in films since the 1980s. From the mid-1990s, the influence of elec-
tronic dance music and hip hop pushed the musically inspired approach
28 The Musicality of Narrative Film

towards notably patterned editing styles and the musicalization of film’s

micro- and macro-patterns, speech and sound effects as apparent, for
instance, in Darren Aronofsky’s π , Tom Tykwer’s Run, Lola, Run (1998)
(Tobias, 2003; Spring, 2010) and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the
Spotless Mind (2004) (Vernallis, 2008). The dramaturgical and sensual
effectiveness of hip hop sampling techniques as applied by Aronofsky
in his debut and his second film Requiem for a Dream (2002) popularized
this practice on many levels and, as we will see later, even infiltrated
the mainstream. Electronic dance music has also remained a prominent
model for musically conceived films owing to the diversity of its subgen-
res which harbour a wide range of tempos and moods. A recent example
is Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (2013) in which the combination of
ambient techno and dubstep seeps from the film’s musical soundtrack
into its bloodstream, forming editing loops and transforming dialogue
into musical chants. Jim Jarmusch’s recent films (The Limits of Control,
2009; Only Lovers Left Alive, 2013), on the other hand, move with the
patient insistence of drone metal. Even his early, more static films had
an inherent musical logic which could be identified in the rhythmicized
macro-forms, with single scenes composed as musical phrases separated
by blackouts and rounded off with musical cadences.
Some of these films come from Europe, which traditionally offered
a friendly environment for innovative ventures in cinema. Others
appeared during, or were directly inspired by the first ‘golden’ decade
of American independent cinema, which began with the international
success of Jarmusch’s first film Stranger than Paradise (1984). This was
a period when films which historically and aesthetically would have
been destined to stay on the margins of popular culture (as was the
case with the work of Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage
in the 1940s, 1950s, and later with No Wave Cinema in the 1970s)
suddenly started to penetrate the principles of studio-based ideology,
bringing changes in approaches to sound and scoring. One could adopt
a cynical view of American independent cinema and say that from the
1990s on, the innovation, subversion and passion of the new generation
was promptly tamed and absorbed by the industry, but it is impossi-
ble to deny the changes that this appropriation of independent spirit
brought to Hollywood, allowing mavericks such as Spike Lee, Charlie
Kaufmann and Quentin Tarantino to reach a wider public and intro-
ducing an approach to scoring which Gorbman (2007) branded ‘auteur
But, as Gorbman herself notes while discussing the work of Taiwanese
director Tsai Ming-Liang, one should not assume that in a musically
Music as Model and Metaphor 29

conceived film there is always a lot of music. On the contrary, in such

a film the presence of actual music is often valued and employed in a
fundamentally different way from conventional scoring based on narra-
tive cueing. In fact, there are examples of musically conceived films that
eschew music completely, such as those of Michael Haneke which rely
exclusively on diegetic sound (Code Unknown, 2000; Hidden, 2005) and
yet the director insists that: ‘without exception the repetitions and vari-
ations in my films have their basis in music. My screenplays are always
constructed according to music criteria,’ (quoted in Walker, 2010, p. 28).
This suggests that the musical quality of a film does not have to come
from a particular song, musical piece, or certain musical styles and gen-
res. As Walter Murch explains, the musical aspect of a film can originate
in the rather abstract notion of the film’s ‘inner sound’:

Even if a scene doesn’t have music, the fact that I ‘heard’ a certain
unwritten music will affect many other decisions. The scene may
become visually musical, even if in the end there is no actual music
under it.
(Murch quoted in Bricknell, 2005, p. 135)

There is no doubt, however, that the fluency and immediacy of film’s

audio-visual structure is most effectively enhanced by the use of music
itself. As Edgar Morin poetically observed:

It is as if film expresses a contained music implied by its form. It is as

if each thing in a film sings, as if the role of the music is to accentuate
that singing, so that it can finally reach our sense of hearing.
(1967, p. 63)

Morin’s observation might not seem pertinent to all scoring traditions

and the ways in which their effects are experienced by audiences but it
certainly resonates with the ethos of this book and will be shown to be
relevant by many of its examples.

The influence of MTV

Although those musically imbued approaches to film that were active

in some parts of European, American and Asian cinema from the 1960s
onwards had an indisputable influence on raising consciousness among
filmmakers about the possibilities of engaging with film’s musical poten-
tial, the practice that dramatically accelerated this process came with
30 The Musicality of Narrative Film

the birth of MTV in 1981. The enormous success of this channel

dedicated exclusively to broadcasting music videos, its commercial via-
bility and the fact that it encouraged the practice of placing pop songs
in films solely for the purpose of ensuring their MTV promotion, has
understandably tainted the reputation of music videos, often making
their commercial value the focus of scholarly criticism (Kaplan, 1987;
Smith, 1998). Nevertheless, the absorption of MTV culture into cinema
practice, either through the use of compiled soundtracks or the adop-
tion of its visual style, also had some productive effects, encouraging
both a spirit of experimentation and the exploration of film’s inherent
musicality in contemporary cinema (Goodwin, 1993; Vernallis, 2004).
The most striking features of those music videos that are recognized as
being particularly influential in the translation of MTV aesthetics into
film practice concern the style of editing and the general emancipation
of narrative from the constraints of linearity and time-space unity typi-
cal of classical film narrative. Some of those features, including the rep-
etition in narrative, the use of images as visual refrains and fast editing,
were not brand new tools invented specifically for the visual representa-
tion of popular music, but in combination with technological develop-
ments in image manipulation and the introduction of digital editing at
the end of the 1980s, they resulted in a confluence of forces that created
what Carol Vernallis (2008) calls ‘intensified audiovisual aesthetics’.
Mobile framing, fast editing and the nonlinear temporal structure of
music videos have sometimes had an indisputably negative effect on
film, particularly when MTV practices have been transposed onto the
big screen mechanically, without consideration for the musical sources
that initially inspired them. However, in many cases the exposure to
MTV culture has influenced filmmakers to develop an awareness for
the audio-visual as opposed to the simply visual perception of films.
The experience of creating videos has made directors more attentive
to changes in musical structure, the connections between musical and
visual phrasing and possible interactions between the two. Admiration
for certain popular musical genres has even inspired some directors to
include related compositional techniques in the process of filmmaking,
particularly editing, as is the case with Darren Aronofsky whose visual
style and editing techniques in π and Requiem for a Dream were strongly
influenced by hip hop and techno music. Add to that the fact that the
making of music videos preceded many directors’ film careers (Spike
Jonze, Jonathan Glazer, David Fincher, Michel Gondry, Mark Romanek
and many others), the stamp of MTV on filmmaking practices in the
1990s became a cultural, economic and aesthetic inevitability.
Music as Model and Metaphor 31

The widespread use of digital editing and its consequences eventu-

ally caused an aesthetic backlash since both Hollywood and MTV hit
the point of saturation with the trend of visual frenzy by the begin-
ning of the noughties. ‘Fast cutting is now in every single commercial,
every single music video, and it’s boring. It’s reached the point of jad-
edness,’ stated Oliver Stone (quoted in Hodenfield, 2002, p. 47) after
Natural Born Killers (1994). Soon after that a tendency towards slower
cutting became obvious on MTV too. The authorial signature of some of
the most respected music video directors from the noughties, including
Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, Jonathan Glazer and Chris Cunningham,
can certainly not be reduced to fast editing (although that option is not
excluded) and the development of provocative narratives, as used to be
the case in the 1980s and 1990s. It is rather about coherence and audio-
visual unity, about finding one striking idea that is strong enough to
carry a whole song. While in some cases that idea was indeed about
fast cutting, as in Michel Gondry’s video for The White Stripes in which
the frame changes on every beat (‘The Hardest Button to Button’ /2003),
other videos showing, for instance, an amateur dance group or a famous
actor dancing (‘Praise You’ /1999/ and ‘Weapon of Choice’ /2001/ by
Fatboy Slim), or two robots making out (‘All is Full of Love’ /1999/ by
Björk), made it clear that the time when MTV aesthetics could automati-
cally be identified with fast cutting was now gone. The fact that a whole
video can be based on static long shots that are registering movement
within a shot, such as in Jonze’s clips for Fatboy Slim or Cunningham’s
for Portishead12 can in a way be understood as the ‘maturing’ of MTV
tastes and expectations because it is obvious that newer generations of
directors have not only a deep respect for music but also a different
understanding of its visual presentation. Their aim is not so much to
catch and keep the attention by flashy editing or by cramming visual
information into three to four minutes so that a video can withstand
repeated viewings. It is more about choosing the idea and visual style
that will correspond to the style of the music, emphasize its strongest
points or simply let it unfold.
Another important influence of MTV relates to the trend of using
pre-existing popular music in film, which allows directors to escape
the restrictions of Hollywood studio practice in film scoring, encour-
ages their audio-visual imagination and the employment of music as
an equal partner to narrative and visual processes. Both Wes Anderson
and Paul Thomas Anderson have revealed that the scripts for The
Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and Magnolia (1999) respectively were written
around previously chosen songs, which has become an almost typical
32 The Musicality of Narrative Film

working method for young writers/directors coming from an inde-

pendent background. Even before the arrival of the ‘MTV generation’
this approach was characteristic of independently oriented directors
such as David Lynch, who always makes the choice of popular music
songs which will feature in the film before production starts. A sim-
ilar approach is employed by many other directors including Martin
Scorsese, Cameron Crowe, Sofia Coppola and Gus Van Sant. Quentin
Tarantino decides which music will play during the opening credits
even before he starts writing the screenplay because music gives him
a ‘good handle’ on the ‘personality’ of the film (quoted in Romney and
Wootton, 1995, p. 130). This approach, however, is not to be confused
with the Hollywood habit of filling up films with pop songs for market-
ing purposes. Its source is rather to be found in the musical sensibilities
of the generation which grew up with MTV.
It is important to stress here, though, that despite the significant influ-
ence of music video aesthetics on the film industry, music videos are in
no way solely responsible for the accelerated trend of the ‘musicaliza-
tion’ of films in recent decades, as can be sometimes construed from
the discourse on musical tendencies in contemporary film; their influ-
ence certainly cannot account for all the examples of film musicality
discussed in this book. For many directors it is their education, per-
sonal musical experience and general interest in music that has formed
their outlook on film. Mike Figgis (Stormy Monday, 1988; Timecode), John
Carpenter (The Fog, 1980), Clint Eastwood (Mystic River, 2003), Vincent
Gallo (Buffalo’66, 1998), Alejandro Amenábar (The Sea Inside, 2004) and
Shane Carruth (Upstream Color, 2013) even compose scores for their own
films. Figgis, like Jim Jarmusch, played in various bands before he turned
to directing films and Jarmusch is still touring with SQÜRL. Cameron
Crowe was a rock journalist before he started to write film scripts and
then direct his own films. Anthony Minghella said that his experience
as a musician informed every aspect of the way in which he made films
(Bricknell, 2005, p. 116), from accompanying the processes of writing,
staging scenes and editing, to starting a collaboration with composer
Gabriel Yared early in pre-production. Alejandro González Iñárritu, who
worked as a radio DJ and composed music for films before he became
a director himself, declared that music had more impact on him as an
artist than film itself. The way he describes his working process echoes
the statements of many of his musically inclined peers:

For me, it is very important to get into my films ahead of time in

a musical way. I conceive a film as a symphony: the structure and
Music as Model and Metaphor 33

textures are determined by the silences and spaces between them.

During the entire process, I keep listening to and researching music
that could be of great inspiration during the development of the
script, preproduction, filming and editing of the film. This way, I can
go forward triggering images in my mind, assimilating and filming
my scenes by beats and internal rhythms. (2006)

Whether coming from pop and hip hop, opera, or the abstract idea of
music as the purest and most elegant form of expression, the notion of
music as a model for film usually harbours the same ultimate goal –
to attain a fluency, immediacy, affective power and sensual impact
similar to that of music. Musical approaches to film and the ways of
realizing film’s musical potential can be as various as the individual
styles of the filmmakers that adopt them. Nevertheless, however dif-
ferent these approaches are, they inevitably concern some (or all) of the
features of temporality, rhythm and movement that film shares with
music, and the techniques involved in employing and manipulating
those features, such as organization of narrative, editing, camera move-
ment, composition of mise-en-scène and use of music. Examples of all
these techniques employed ‘musically’ in film will be discussed in the
following chapters, highlighting the new surge of musicality that has
infiltrated contemporary film practice.
Part II
Comparative Analysis of Music
and Film
The Musicality of Film Rhythm

Rhythm is a truly ubiquitous phenomenon that permeates all

manifestations of life in the universe. Biological rhythms govern all the
processes in our body, from the continuous pulse of the beating heart
and the rhythm of breathing to the body’s responses to external cyclical
rhythms of nature manifested in the succession of day and night, lunar
influences, the change of seasons and so on. Rhythm is connected with
movement and as such has been inherent to practically all of man’s
activities, from sex to speech and social exchanges. As Walther Dürr
(1981, p. 182) says, the whole world that surrounds us reveals itself in
rhythmic forms, and it is not surprising that this universal phenomenon
is also reflected in the arts. Rhythm is an essential part in structuring
any art form and as the most reliable parameter for measuring space
and time, rhythm also acts as the common denominator for all arts.
Considering that music rhythm has been studied in more depth than
the rhythm of any other art,1 using music as a reference point to under-
stand and define rhythm in film seems a natural first step. In pursuit of
an integral definition of film rhythm, I will look at previous attempts
to address this aspect of film and will use research from Gestalt psy-
chology about the perception of groupings to further illuminate this
This chapter will also reveal that, beyond the superficial similarities
expected to be found in two arts that both unfold in time, musical
and film rhythmic profiles also share some more subtle features typi-
cal of arts with multilayered rhythmic structures. These will be explored
through the comparison of the concepts of chronometric and integral
time in music (Epstein, 1987, 1995) on one hand and the aesthetics of
the cut and the shot (Kolker, 1998) on the other.

38 The Musicality of Narrative Film

Music rhythm and its reflection in aspects of film rhythm

The very first attempts to create fluent rhythmic structures in film were
performed by the French film Impressionists who modelled their films
on various musical pieces using rhythmic changes in music to determine
the lengths of the shots in their abstract films. As Jean Mitry pointed
out (2000, p. 219), this approach immediately revealed important dif-
ferences regarding the perception of rhythm in both arts: while rhythm
in music represents one of its most powerful affective aspects, rhythmic
relationships between moving visual units based on the length of the
shots (without sound, we should emphasize) do not have any emotional
impact whatsoever. This realization was enough to dissuade Mitry from
pursuing further the comparison between film and music rhythm and
he even advised against such a methodology (p. 220). His argument,
however, is compromised by the fact that he based his evidence exclu-
sively on his analysis of the silent films and failed to consider the impact
of sound in establishing and perceiving film rhythm. So the question is,
are there corresponding elements between musical and film rhythm?
In the most basic terms, musical rhythm can be defined as the rela-
tionship between durations and accents. As the first element of this
definition is a strictly temporal one, in the context of an art which
also incorporates a spatial dimension like film does, the aspect of dura-
tion would not only include the measure of length but would have
to consider the influence of the spatial/visual element on the percep-
tion of temporality. Depending on the content, composition, framing,
camera movement of the shot and its ‘density’, two shots of the same
length might be perceived as being different in duration.2 Besides con-
firming that visual perception is less sensitive to temporal than spatial
stimuli, this variableness of perception of duration is also evidence that
the rhythm of editing cannot be based on absolute durations of shots.3
Things are even more complicated when it comes to the second ele-
ment of the rhythmic relationship, the accent. In music literature an
accent is defined as a ‘stimulus which is marked for consciousness in some
way’ (Cooper and Meyer, 1960, p. 8). It means that an accent in music
can be distinguished from other stimuli because of differences in dura-
tion, intensity, pitch, timbre and so on. The question is, though, how do
we define an accent in film, or more precisely, how do we decide which
accents are relevant to a film’s rhythmic structure?
The successive durations of visual units alone have no accents through
which a rhythmic relation can be established. These accents are to be
found in a frame’s content and are closely related to another aspect of
The Musicality of Film Rhythm 39

film that Mitry proclaimed as the most important for establishing film
rhythm – the intensity of a shot:

Rhythm [in film] has more to do with relationships of intensity [than

duration] – but relationships of intensity contained within relation-
ships of duration . . . The intensity of a shot depends on the amount of
movement (physical, dramatic or psychological) contained in it and
on the length of time it lasts.
(2000, p. 222)

Perfect examples of visual content gaining the function of a rhythmical

accent through the relationship between intensity and duration are to
be found in practically all the action sequences in The Matrix Reloaded
(the Wachowski Brothers, 2003). Its stylized fights as well as the spec-
tacular freeway chase are based on sequences of short, dynamic shots
that are without exception punctuated with shots of longer duration
in which movement is slowed down to the point where it is almost
perceived as a freeze-frame. Although the stylized interruption of action
sequences in this manner is not a novelty in itself, the Wachowski broth-
ers employ these slow-motion shots as focal points that accumulate
the dynamism of short, striking shots into one prolonged moment of
Bearing Mitry’s observations in mind, film rhythm could be redefined
as the relationship between the intensity of a frame’s content and the
duration of its visual units. However, this definition does not make it
clear that film is an audio-visual form and that the content of the frame
is aural as well as visual, so that both components are responsible for
its intensity. It is indisputable that the crucial aural input in the process
of establishing film rhythm comes from music itself. Aside from all its
other functions in film, music by ‘just being there’ gives film its sense of
temporality. As Mitry (1997, p. 248) noticed, silent film was incapable of
making the spectator experience ‘a real feeling of duration, of time pass-
ing’, because what was missing was a sort of ‘rhythmic beat’ which could
‘enable the audience to measure internally the psychological time of the
drama, relating it to the basic sensation of real time’ and this beat, this
‘temporal content’ was provided by music. Of course, the notion of tem-
porality and its rhythmic and affective inflections can be imprinted in
film through sound in general, be they noises of nature, like the sound
of water in Tarkovsky’s films, the intonation and cadences of human
speech, or the noise of industrial surroundings, as used in David Lynch’s
Eraserhead (1977) and David Cronenberg’s Spider (2002) with unsettling
40 The Musicality of Narrative Film

effect. Unlike the registration of visual accents which are dependent on

the audio-spectator’s position and focus of attention, accents made in
sound have an immediate effect on our auditory receptors.
This interaction of aural and visual elements in the process of
establishing a film’s rhythm inspired Michael Chion’s notion of
‘transsensorial perception’ which explains rhythm as the element of film
vocabulary that is neither specifically auditory nor visual as it becomes
decoded in the brain as rhythm after passing the sensory path of the
eye or ear. Chion (1994, pp. 136–7) argues that in the process of expe-
riencing art, the senses act as ‘channels, highways more than territories
or domains’ so ‘when kinetic sensations organized into art are trans-
mitted through a single sensory channel, through this single channel
they convey all the other senses at once’. This also brings to mind
Eisenstein’s discussions about seeking the ‘common denominator’ of
aural and visual stimuli in the process of audio-visual counterpoint.
According to Eisenstein, this common denominator is a product of syn-
ergetic audio-visual interaction in which ‘overtones’ of aural and visual
perception and the statements ‘I hear’ and ‘I see’ are replaced by a
new sensation ‘I feel’ (1978, p. 189). While Eisenstein’s and Chion’s
claims were only hypothetical, they nonetheless resonate strongly with
Cohen’s (2002, p. 228) aforementioned statement that ‘the sensory ori-
gin of multimedia information becomes less relevant at higher levels
of analysis’. The next section intends to situate the complex strands of
audio-visual rhythm in the context of the Gestalt laws of perception.

Rhythm, metre and Gestalt laws of perception

It is clear from the previous discussion that Mitry’s otherwise insight-

ful analysis of film rhythm cannot be considered conclusive because he
excluded sound from his final definition. His insistence on emphasizing
the difference between music and film rhythm should be approached
with a similar reservation because one of his passing comments about
the similarities between film rhythm and prosodic rhythm, or the free
rhythm of Gregorian chant, makes it clear that his primary point of
comparison was the metric rhythm typical of Western music of the sec-
ond millennium exclusive of music of other epochs or cultures. This dis-
tinction illuminates our (Western) tendency to view rhythm in music as
inevitably associated with the existence of a regular pulse with more or
less regularly recurring accents, but it also provokes us to include music
without metre in the comparative analysis of two arts. Nevertheless,
metric or non-metric, the perception of every rhythmic structure is
The Musicality of Film Rhythm 41

dependent on the process of grouping that takes place automatically

when we are exposed to the repetition of aural stimuli, in a way similar
to the laws of visual perception as explained by Gestalt psychology.
The process of grouping in music happens on several levels simul-
taneously. On the most basic level, grouping is established through a
pulse regulated by the appearance of accents which divide temporal
flux into equal units which we call measures. The architectonic level
on which this process of grouping takes place was defined in temporal
terms by Epstein (1987, 1995) as chronometric time. The metrical arrange-
ment of music, however, does not act like a ‘straitjacket’ for rhythm,
as Zuckerkandl (1973, pp. 157–81) points out; it does not choke its
independent articulations. On the contrary, ‘out of a regular succession
of measured beats rises the wave’, Zuckerkandl says, and somewhere
between the strictness of metre and the free articulations of rhythm,
movement is generated. This other level of grouping that takes place in
parallel with and independently from metrical grouping, Epstein calls
the integral time of music. This distinction between chronometric and
integral time will prove useful when discussing the differences between
film rhythm of the cut and the shot respectively.
The process of organizing separate sounds mentally into structural
patterns is influenced by various aspects of music which, as well as
duration, also include pitch, intensity, timbre, texture and harmony,
although rarely at the same time. As Cooper and Meyer (1960, p. 9)

. . . grouping on all architectonic levels is a product of similarity and

difference, proximity and separation of the sounds perceived by the
senses and organized by the mind . . . In general, sounds or groups
of sounds which are similar (in timbre, volume, etc.) and near to
each other (in time, pitch, etc.) form strongly unified rhythmic pat-
terns. Difference and distance between sounds or groups of sounds
tend to separate rhythmic patterns. However, though similarity tends
to create cohesion, repetition usually makes for the separation of

The influence of similarity and proximity as the two ‘primary factors

of cohesion and segregation’ in the process of grouping was confirmed
in the research based on the principles of Gestalt psychology in a tem-
poral context conducted by James Tenney and Larry Polansky (1980).
Of course, recognizing the importance of these factors in temporal
Gestalt is in a way an ‘echo’ of the much more explored and written
42 The Musicality of Narrative Film

about laws of spatial Gestalt, on which the majority of Gestalt research

has been focused.5 However, it is useful to remember at this point that
even looking at static pictures is a temporal process that influences visual
perception because visual stimuli occur in succession, and perception
itself takes time, not least because it involves the movement of our eyes.6
When looking at moving pictures the role of temporal factors is empha-
sized even more in terms of the perception of overall visual content, its
movement and rhythm.
However, the temporal aspect of film form constitutes only a part of
the process of rhythmical grouping in film. Dušan Stojanović (1984,
pp. 165–6) explains that the perception of rhythm in film and the
mental process of grouping are also dependant on the complex rela-
tionships among film dominants. Owing to the composite nature of
the medium, Gestalt laws of organization in perceptual forms in film
involve dominants of form, movement and space-time. Dominants of
form include all prominent shapes, lines and colours of visual composi-
tion, as well as dominants of sound that encompass all noises, human
voices and music. Dominants of movement also cover both parame-
ters of picture and sound, while dominants of space-time consist of all
optical, acoustic, temporal and psychological aspects of film that influ-
ence our experience of space-time continuity or discontinuity in film.
All these elements create certain dynamics in form and its perception,
which is crucial for our comprehension of film rhythm in its totality.
Another approach to defining film rhythm has been suggested by
Claudia Widgery (1990), who focuses on the elements of film kinesis
as the strongest means of expressing rhythm. Having in mind all kinetic
aspects of film – movement within a shot, movement of the camera,
movement of editing and the general feeling of temporality established
by it – Widgery proposes defining film rhythm as the ‘interaction of a
shot’s kinetic content with the timing of its cutting and the dynamics
of the individual shots that precede and follow it’ (p. 133). Interest-
ingly, this definition, as does Mitry’s earlier one, addresses only visual
aspects of kinesis in film. Nevertheless, Widgery later acknowledges that
music represents film’s ‘ultimate extra-diegetic source of kinesis’ since
music rhythm, ‘particularly that with a steady pulse, arguably has a
more immediate and visceral kinetic impact than the rhythm of cutting
itself’ (p. 143). To this we could add that, even though the influence of
music in this context is indisputable, sound itself can bring the same
immediacy and visceral effect to film kinesis, as the following sections
will illustrate.
The Musicality of Film Rhythm 43

Following on from Widgery’s analysis, Nicholas Cook (1998, p. 143)

points out that various parameters of music rhythm (‘surface’ rhythm,
harmonic rhythm, tonal or formal rhythm) relate to different aspects
of visual kinesis and he emphasizes Widgery’s claim that the process
of applying different concepts of cross-media relationships to a specific
context brings to light ‘countless additional parameters influencing the
total scope of their definition’ (Widgery, 1990, p. 33). This complies
with the previously mentioned argument based on Gestalt psychology
that the rhythmic identity of a film work is built on complex relation-
ships between film dominants where movement is only one aspect of it.
Cook concludes that the process of analysing rhythm in film or other
multimedia forms ‘might be expected to have the effect of breaking
down global categories such as “music” and “pictures” through the dis-
covery of component parameters that contribute independently to the
multimedia experience’.
This statement brings us back to Chion’s notion of ‘transsensorial per-
ception’ but it also reminds us that the process of breaking down the
main constituents of film into functional components of film rhythm
does not provide a precise or even exhaustive tool for its analysis and
makes sense only up to the point that reveals the full level of complex-
ity and elusiveness in film rhythm. Beyond that point, film rhythm,
as any other multimedia parameter, has to be viewed in terms of its
interactive and co-dependent relationships, ‘transsensorial’ (or at least
‘multisensorial’) perception and polyvalent functions. In view of all
this, the way practitioners have been addressing the question of film
rhythm seems unusually and inappropriately simplistic, although the
explanation for this lies in the fact that most filmmakers belong to
one of two groups: those who believe that film rhythm is created in
the editing room and those who maintain that rhythm is established
through the complex orchestration of the mise-en-scène – its compo-
sition, lighting and movement. These two approaches stem from two
different concepts of film time, which will be explained in detail in
Chapter 6, but in this chapter I will focus on their rhythmic proper-
ties as representative of the opposing aesthetics of the cut and the shot
which, as Robert P. Kolker (1998, p. 15) argues, form the ‘bedrock of
film theory’. My contention is that the parallel analysis of the shot and
the cut approaches should result in conclusions about film rhythm that
will enable us to make the most integrated definition so far, while the
comparison with music rhythm in this process should illuminate cer-
tain features of film that are generally overlooked in conventional film
44 The Musicality of Narrative Film

Rhythm of the shot and the cut

In the aesthetics of the shot, issues of time, rhythm and movement

are tightly interwoven. As Tarkovsky (1986, p. 117) explains, it is ‘the
distinctive time running through the shots [that] creates the rhythm
of the picture; and rhythm is determined not by the length of the
edited pieces, but by the pressure of the time that runs through them’.
The raw temporal material of lengthy shots is sculpted through careful
visual compositions, the movement of the camera and the use of sound
and music, meaning that the resulting rhythm is almost inevitably cre-
ated through the interaction of sonic and visual elements, which is not
always necessarily the case in the aesthetics of the cut.
In the dream scene from Tarkovsky’s film Mirror (1975) for instance,
its peculiar oneiric rhythm emerges from the combination of differ-
ent visual movements in the mise-en-scène and the sonic content: the
camera slowly panning across the room, gradually widening its frame;
the actress playing Tarkovsky’s mother (Margarita Terekhova) moving
in slow-motion, water dripping from her wet hair and water and pieces
of ceiling falling from above as if it is raining inside the house; the
sound of trickling water being absorbed by the muffled voices of a male
choir, punctuated by the ring of a church bell and the hooting of an
owl (0.15.57–0.19.06).7 Although the scene consists of two mobile and
one static shot, it maintains a distinctly fluid pulse, as if delivered in
an uninterrupted shot, which is as much the result of continuous visual
movement softened through slow-motion as of sustained sound uncon-
strained by metric rhythm. The sense of floating is so dominant that at
the moment when the actress steps away from the basin with her head
bowed, her long hair still soaking wet, one gets the impression that her
feet are not even touching the ground.
The aesthetics of the shot and the complexity of its audio-visual
rhythm are even more strongly pronounced in Béla Tarr’s films in
which the durations of single shots are further extended to reach
lengths unusual even for ‘slow-cinema’, sometimes up to 11 minutes.
If Tarkovsky wanted to allow the ‘pressure of time to run through the
shot’ in order to create a particular rhythm, Tarr seems to be aiming
for a sense of temporal limbo. The gaze of his camera is so unwa-
vering, the experience of the present tense so heightened, that the
audio-spectator’s submersion into vertical temporality seems inevitable,
its pulse profoundly affected by sound.
The opening shots of Tarr’s films in particular have gained legendary
status and that is probably where the combination of extended shot
The Musicality of Film Rhythm 45

duration and musically conceived sound design produces the most strik-
ing results. Sátántangó (1994) starts with a static shot of an old and
apparently deserted farm building. As the frame is filled with a herd
of cows, the camera starts following them with a slow pan, reveal-
ing a whole settlement of abandoned, derelict houses, accompanied
throughout by the sound of the wind howling and the eerie, hardly
audible sound of bells reverberating somewhere outside the diegetic
space, a sound which will later in the film be referred to as the bell
of a long-gone church. Damnation (1988) also starts with a static shot
observing a cable of coal-buckets sliding along wires, the creaky sounds
of machinery dominating the scene. The camera eventually retracts to
reveal first a window frame and then the lonely figure of a man look-
ing through the window and smoking. Both scenes unfold at a very
slow pace, the camera either focused on the movement within the shot
or panning/retracting gently, but the extended durations of the shots
allow us to catch a pattern in the on-screen movements or the sound
design, thus endowing both scenes with a distinctive rhythmic quality.
In Sátántangó only the sound design is patternized, the sound of church
bells establishing a loop over which the panning of the camera and
the erratic roaming of the cows draw independent, free-flowing lines,
creating an audio-visual rhythmic counterpoint. In Damnation the coal-
buckets travel along the cable in a regular, repetitive movement, creating
both visual and musical accents. These accents produce the sense of an
almost regular metric pulse which is additionally musicalized by an elec-
tronic drone in the background, while the slow expansion of the camera
frame brings in an element of dynamism to the shot. Thus, it is not
only the sound design but the combination of diegetic sound, electronic
sound, visual movement within the frame and camera movement, with
duration as the principal facilitator, that create musical effect in these
The repetitive movement and patternized rhythmic effect in Tarr’s
long shots clearly contrasts with the irregular rhythm of Tarkovsky’s
shots free from metre and a stable beat. In both cases though, the
main facilitator of rhythmic pulse – whether regular or irregular – is
time: instead of uniformly organized patterns established through edit-
ing, the extended durations of the shots in Tarkovsky’s and Tarr’s films
create a space from which rhythm emerges slowly and freely, the repeti-
tions in visual and sonic movements often intertwining in audio-visual
Stemming from the Russian montage school of the 1920s, the
aesthetics of the cut was itself originally committed to the notion
46 The Musicality of Narrative Film

of audio-visual counterpoint, as explained in the ‘Statement’ that

Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Alexandrov issued in 1928. However, the ide-
ological and artistic principles of the Russian school and its concerns
with dialectical form and intellectual engagement of the audience were
quickly modified by Hollywood to form a new, continuity style as the
bedrock of mainstream cinema. The primary concern of this style is
to tell a story utilizing editing as its main tool, but instead of draw-
ing attention to the relationship between shots in order to create a
dialectical synthesis of idea, emotion and perception, as in the Russian
montage school, the ideology of ‘invisibility’ in classical Hollywood
style demands that all traces of a film’s formal and technical devices are
kept hidden in order to maintain the illusion of diegetic space and allow
the viewer’s full immersion in it. At the same time, the rule of ‘invisi-
bility’ has led directors to intuitively opt for shorter takes, keeping the
flow of storytelling uninterrupted.8
Between 1967 and 1975 the ‘New Hollywood’ style brought some
changes to American cinema in terms of new topics, thematic ambi-
guities and a self-conscious approach to storytelling influenced by
European art cinema, reducing the levels of ‘invisibility’ and continuity.
However, the linear utopian (Flinn, 1992) style of classical Hollywood
returned in the second half of the 1970s, epitomized in the films of
George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, which were even ‘ “more classical”
than traditional Hollywood movies, because of the narrative and tech-
nical expertise of their creators’ (T. Schatz, quoted in Kramer, 1998,
p. 304). Although contemporary American filmmaking is not so con-
cerned with keeping its devices invisible as was characteristic of the
classical era or of neo-classicism after 1975 – on the contrary, young
directors are quite fond of showy camera work and visual pyrotechnics
influenced by music video aesthetics – the basic traits of mainstream
cinema have remained resilient to change to a degree that prompted
both David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson to argue that all stylistic
innovations in American filmmaking after the 1960s ‘remain within
classical boundaries’ (Bordwell, quoted in Kramer, 1998, p. 306). While
the recent tendency within independent cinema to explore multilayered
temporalities – to be discussed in more detail in Chapter 6 – now offers
an effective counter-argument to this theory, the truth is that the dom-
inant practice of American cinema as the most influential film industry
has indeed held on to many stylistic habits from the classical era. The
most important for this discussion about film rhythm are those that
comply with characteristics typical of the ideologically and aesthetically
modified ‘ways of the cut’ (modified in comparison to Eisenstein’s style
The Musicality of Film Rhythm 47

from which the original meaning of the term stems). Because, regardless
of the mode of narration, the continuum of storytelling in contem-
porary American films relies on editing more than anything else, the
length of shots is kept short, while the rhythm of editing is often influ-
enced by the aesthetics of either music videos or popular music styles.
Of course, when editing is used thoughtfully, creatively and musically, it
not only produces a powerful sensual experience but also contributes to
our deeper understanding of film, as can be seen in Darren Aronofsky’s
first two films π and Requiem for a Dream.
In Requiem for a Dream the audio-visual pattern that depicts drug con-
sumption constitutes an important part of its structure and invests the
film with a powerful dramaturgical and emotional effect. As one critic
observed, it also gives the film a ‘certain precision musicality’:

In a recurrent motif he [Aronofsky] strips down the mechanics of

drug use to their fundamentals: a needle is filled; a bank note rolled;
a television switched on. Blood vessels expand, pupils dilate. Cut,
after cut, after cut, after cut.
(Leigh, 2000, p. 28)

A similar, although noticeably shorter sample-segment punctuated by

exaggerated sound effects appears in π showing the protagonist’s self-
administration of drugs prescribed for his debilitating migraine attacks.
In both films these sample-segments are associated with the addic-
tive habits of their protagonists, so that their reappearances have an
important dramaturgical function in the narrative, emphasizing the
compulsive behaviour of the characters and charting their psychological
and physical deterioration.
The first part of Requiem’s three-act structure culminates with a
‘hip hop’ montage sequence (0.28.19–0.29.57)9 which combines short
sample-shots of drug distribution and consumption with slightly longer
ones that include a short dialogue between Marion (Jennifer Connolly)
and her boyfriend Harry (Jared Leto). This type of editing establishes
diversity within a pattern, allowing the process of grouping to take
place. The techno-music acts as the ‘scaffold’ for the sequence rhythmi-
cally and aesthetically. The doubling of musical and visual accents has
an almost visceral effect on the viewer, like the techno-music itself, and
at the same time it clearly evokes the drug-induced rush which some of
the shots illustrate. The repetition of single shots of drug-consumption
within a pattern emphasizes the addictive nature of the habit, while the
repetition of the whole pattern in slightly varied manifestations, and
48 The Musicality of Narrative Film

its strategic positioning in the overall structure, give it an important

dramaturgical function. By connecting all the characters in their addic-
tive habits this miniature montage sequence conveys one of the main
ideas of the film, which insists on equalizing the nature and tragic con-
sequences of all addictions (be they drug-habits or an obsession with
trash-TV and the distorted image of life it advocates) since they all serve
the same purpose – as any addiction by definition does – of an anaes-
thetic for the protagonists’ deep pains and cravings. On the other hand,
the repetition of the pattern and its rhythmic character leave no doubt
about the overpowering nature of their habits.
But what makes all the sample-segments so memorable, effectively
turning them into dramaturgical gravitational points, is the audio-visual
editing in which short shots of pill/drug-taking, locking a door, flicking
a lighter, turning on a television, powder hitting a table, money piling
up and so on, are amplified by hugely exaggerated sound effects. Even
images of eyes moving or pupils dilating are given their inflated sonic
equivalents. The diegetic sounds of swallowing, snorting, sipping, pour-
ing, hitting and buzzing are ‘processed’ and constructed into unrealistic,
striking sound effects with lives of their own, while a number of other
noises (blaring car-alarm, ringing cash register, sampled human voice)
appear without visible diegetic sources whatsoever. Most interestingly,
all the sound effects are distributed in a very rhythmic, metrically reg-
ular manner (whether tied to Clint Mansell’s accompanying score or
not), which emphasizes their musical and percussive qualities, bringing
to mind effects and stylistic devices typical of hip-hop music: scratching,
punching, rupturing the flow with unexpected breaks (Kulezic-Wilson,
All discussed examples, whether they follow the ways of the shot or
the cut, have their rhythm created through the interaction of visual
and sonic components. This makes it clear that both approaches are
equally efficient in creating effective rhythmic structures, so the only
possible conclusion is that we are dealing here with two different kinds
of rhythm that exist in parallel, but are perceived in the mind as a single
flow. These two types of rhythm were actually already identified in the
early stages of film theory by Léon Moussinac (1925/1978, pp. 94–9) as
internal and external rhythm, where the former includes both diegetic
action and the way the camera records it, while the latter is created by
the way a film is cut.
On the first level of comparison one could argue that internal rhythm
in film corresponds loosely to music rhythm free of metre, while exter-
nal rhythm in film can potentially be compared to metric rhythm in
The Musicality of Film Rhythm 49

music when it utilizes accents and patterns on the rhythmic micro level,
as exemplified in the montage sequence in Aronofsky’s film. This com-
parison should not be understood literally though, because unlike the
generally regular metre in Western tonal music, the metric quality of
cutting is not necessarily based on a succession of editing units of the
same length nor is the origin of the accents clearly determined. The
metric quality of the cutting rhythm can be attained through alternat-
ing short and slightly longer shots of which the latter can play the role
of accents themselves, as in The Matrix Reloaded, or the cutting seams
can be accentuated by striking sonic effects, as in Requiem for a Dream.
However, the very use of accents and the formation of patterns on the
rhythmic micro level distinguishes this kind of rhythm from an internal
rhythm free of metre.
More significant, though, is the relationship of coexistence and inter-
action between external and internal film rhythm and its striking
resemblance to the relationship between chronometric and integral
time in music as explained by David Epstein. According to Epstein
(1987, p. 57), chronometric time refers to that ‘essentially mechanistic,
evenly spaced, and in large part evenly articulated time set up within
a musical measure in the music of the baroque through romantic eras
(extending by and large into our own era as well)’. Integral time, on
the other hand, denotes the unique organization of time intrinsic to an
individual piece, the structuring of time by phrase, section, motif and
flow that is different in every work. The smallest unit of chronometric
time is the beat, which is felt as precise and regular, while the unit of
measurement for integral time is pulse, arising from patterns intrinsic
to the work and experienced within the broader range of articulations.11
Chronometric and integral time function as architectonically parallel
systems that are also perceptively and cognitively processed as parallel,
but their potential discordance on a basic level – between rhythmic and
metric accents, beat and pulse – generate useful tension in musical flow
and their processing involves a ‘morphologically unified parameter – the
temporal stream of music’ (1995, p. 42).
The aspect of parallel coexistence of internal and external rhythm
in film is even more obvious than the parallelism between metre and
rhythm in music to the point that certain directors make conscious
decisions to focus on one of them, whereas in music this division is
of an analytical nature that neither composers nor listeners have to be
aware of. However, in the same way that the conjunction and opposi-
tion of metre and rhythm in music unfold through continuous tension
and adjustment to each other, so do external and internal rhythms in
50 The Musicality of Narrative Film

film interrelate, dealing with different temporal aspects and still being
dependent on each other for the creation of a ‘morphologically unified
parameter’ – a single temporal stream.
Incidentally, the duality of the constitutive temporal dimension in
a work of art is not exclusive to music and film. Paul Ricoeur (1984,
p. 66) recognizes two similar temporal dimensions in literature. The first,
chronological, one bears features similar to chronometric time as it ‘con-
stitutes the episodic dimension of narrative. It characterizes the story
insofar as it is made of events’. The second, ‘configurational’, dimension
corresponds to integral time in music:

This configurational act consists of ‘grasping together’ the detailed

actions or what I have called the story’s incidents. It draws from this
manifold of events the unity of one temporal whole.

Ultimately, whether consciously recognized as separate, the two lev-

els of rhythmic structure either in music or in film cannot fulfil their
functions on their own. The interaction between them is necessary to
create a meaningful, completed form. Moreover, the underlying tension
between rhythm and metre in music or, on the other hand, the orches-
trated relationship between internal and external rhythm in film, act as
a source of the basic structural and affective powers inherent to each
This discussion will be continued in Chapter 6 which explores how
the predilection for these two types of rhythmic structure corresponds to
similar preferences for two specific types of temporality and the partic-
ular aesthetic choices associated with them, but at this stage it is useful
to conclude that those directors who base their rhythmic structures on
editing also tend to focus on external rhythm and think more in terms
of linear temporality, grouping and rhythmical patterns which loosely
correspond to Western music with a stable metrical beat; on the other
hand, internal rhythm has more of the characteristics of musical free-
rhythm and is usually a point of focus for directors who are comfortable
with nonlinear temporality in narrative and who prefer long takes and
the aesthetics of the shot.
I believe that the examined points of similarity between the distinc-
tive characteristics of the aesthetics of the shot and the cut on one
hand, and certain features of musical structuring on the other, point
to analogies between music and particular aesthetic approaches to film
that might be useful in terms of encouraging new ways of thinking
about film as well as opening a new field of metaphorical categories
The Musicality of Film Rhythm 51

in connection with it. With this in mind I will suggest yet another
definition according to which film rhythm is established through the
interaction of external and internal rhythmic dominants of aural, visual
and kinetic content, in which the role of accents responsible for the
mental grouping of film’s constituents into rhythm can be played by
any sonic or visual element of a frame’s content. Because of the com-
plexity of film’s audio-visual structure and all the parameters involved,
defining a methodology which would allow an exhaustive analysis of
film rhythm, let alone full control of all its constituents in the cre-
ative process, may seem an impossible task. However, acknowledging
and illuminating its working mechanisms is an important first step in
that direction.
The Rhythm of Rhythms

If constitutive rhythm manifests itself in the inner pulse of the content,

then structural rhythm, or ‘the rhythm of rhythms’ (Alvarez, 1989,
p. 221), refers to the distribution and pacing of that content within
the formal framework – the aspect concerned with presenting it to the
outer world and ensuring the strongest possible response to it. Struc-
tural rhythm is concerned with questions of how: how are different
formal units organized; how are their relationships defined; and how
do they create a dynamic structure? In order to illuminate the relevance
of these questions and the comparative qualities of the answers regard-
ing both music and film, this chapter will explore the methods involved
in the creation of rhythmic form and the similarities between their use
in music and film. I will focus particularly on repetition and patterning
as the most basic and simultaneously most efficient methods of estab-
lishing rhythmic form in both arts because their significance stretches
beyond formal issues of structuring, affecting questions concerning the
emotional power of art, aesthetics and ideology.

Macro-rhythm and issues of perception

In the purely scientific sense, ‘rhythmic’ means ‘periodic’ and the use of
this term implies the cyclic recurrence of a certain event at fairly regular
intervals. As was discussed in the previous chapter, periodic activities or
movements are intrinsic to all living creatures, all aspects of nature and,
according to some physicists, to the universe in general, which means
that the concept of rhythm applies to all these aspects of life.
In music, rhythm refers to the (usually) regular distribution of sound
stimuli that are perceived as structured patterns. Compared to the imme-
diate impact that musical rhythm creates through its continuous pulse,

The Rhythm of Rhythms 53

macro-rhythm deals with rather ‘delayed’ or postponed effects that are

the result of rhythmic relations established between the constituents
of a large-scale form. In a typical musical ABA form, for instance, the
first section is repeated completely or with variations, thus establish-
ing a rhythmical form whose symmetrical proportions are based on the
reprise of its first section. In other arts the concept of macro- or struc-
tural rhythm does not necessarily involve periodicity in the sense of
an exact repetition or recurrence of a certain event or a section of the
structure, as often might be the case in music. The notion of period-
icity might here be fulfilled by the oscillating recurrence of properties
generally associated with rhythm, such as tension and release or con-
flict and resolution, which take place on a scale much larger than the
immediate relationships of micro-rhythm. The assumption is that, by
being composite, every structure can be a rhythmical one in terms of
the relationships between its constituents, as long as these relationships
establish some kind of periodic recurrence. Conceived like this, the con-
cept of macro-rhythm is broad and flexible enough to be applicable to
different arts or different styles and genres within one art. In the con-
text of this book it is employed not only as the common denominator
for the forms of both music and film, but also as a concept that can cut
across different music and film traditions and genres.
However, considering the scepticism of some scholars (Levinson,
1997; Mitry, 2000) regarding our ability to perceive the periodicity of
macro-rhythm because it relies on comprehending the relationships
between distant stimuli, it is useful to consider here Edward T. Cone’s
(1968) point that these two types of rhythm relate to two different
modes of aesthetic perception. Immediate apprehension recognizes the
closest relationships between constituents of a form, while synoptic
comprehension captures structural relationships. Cone admits that, com-
pared to immediate apprehension, synoptic comprehension in music is
‘indeed partly conceptual’ but is essential to the aesthetic experience as
it enables the appreciation of an artwork in its individuality: ‘the ideal
hearing of a composition is one that enjoys both modes simultaneously,
that savors each detail all the more for realizing its role in the form of
the whole’ (1968, pp. 96–7).
Although it is clear that synoptic comprehension depends on indi-
vidual ability, there is no doubt that it can be made easier or even
enhanced by the establishment of rhythmical form. Musical percep-
tion tests have demonstrated that rhythmical grouping can help one
to remember as many small groups as one can individual objects with-
out grouping. Also, if individual sounds are grouped hierarchically in
54 The Musicality of Narrative Film

measures, phrases, periods and movements, the ability to grasp larger

and larger units increases (Seashore, 1967). These findings were further
advanced by the pioneering research of Tenney and Polansky in the area
of temporal Gestalt and the exploration of the perceptual boundaries of
what they call ‘temporal Gestalt units’ (or TG units).1 As the tempo-
ral Gestalt unit is defined in relation to what follows as well as what
precedes it, the decision about what constitutes a TG unit cannot be
made until after it has passed, which is connected to the phenomenon
of ‘decision-delay’. Since these delays are cumulative at progressively
higher levels, further into a piece of music delays become longer until
the time span of the musical content exceeds the memory’s capacity and
is no longer heard as a temporal Gestalt, which certainly happens on
the first hearing of a piece. However, according to Tenney and Polansky
(1980, p. 236), ‘with gradually increasing familiarity with a piece these
delays may be diminished, or finally eliminated altogether, to the extent
to which TGs which have not yet occurred can be anticipated, via longer
term memory’.
Although Tenney’s and Polansky’s research was based in music, it
seems reasonable to assume that a similar approach could be applied
to film.2 The point is that grouping improves our ability to handle new
information while rhythm adjusts the ‘strain of attention’ (Seashore,
1967, p. 140) and enables us to anticipate the magnitude of the formal
units that are to be grasped. Thus, it seems plausible that if the principles
of periodicity and grouping are applied to a large-scale form in either
music or film, the ability to comprehend the structural relationships of
that form will certainly be increased.
Rhythms of patterns, changes and repetitions, tension and relaxation,
anticipation and expectation in an art form do not always have to be
perceived and recognized consciously, as long as one responds to their
pulsation. As Raymond Bayer observes, the plane of rhythms in a work
of art is the place where formalism and psychologism are reconciled,
because that is where the two worlds of art meet: the realm of design
and the realm of experience. Bayer (1958, p. 196) calls structural rhythm
‘the locus of intersection of mathematicism and hedonism’. Pursuing
this thought, it can be argued that the plane of macro-rhythm brings
together the sensuous and the intellectual, the perceptive and the cog-
nitive aspects of art consumption. The perceiver might be lured into
an artwork subtly, without the artist signposting his/her intentions at
every turn so that the patterns of formal rhythm at first encounter
might be recognized only subconsciously. But even if this is so, it
does not mean that the expressive power of a structure regulated by
The Rhythm of Rhythms 55

its rhythm will fail to affect the perceiver. On the other hand, con-
sequent, analytical consumption of the ‘mathematics’ of an artwork
will reveal its structural subtleties and bring a deeper understanding of
the work.

The immersive power of form

In the broadest terms, macro-rhythm may be described as the whole

divided into sections that function as cohesive units. Rhythm in plays,
novels or films may be examined through plot, dramatic action, conflict
and resolution, since these are the elements involved in the processes
of change, progression and the establishment of patterns. Our involve-
ment with narrative in film is based on expectations and anticipations
manipulated by delay or surprise, postponed revelations and suspense,
invigorated curiosity, identification and active affective participation.
But then, most of these phenomena play active roles in music form
too. The fact that music deals with abstract sonic material does not
mean that expectation, anticipation or suspense are categories out of
its reach. Over the centuries music has developed a well-researched
vocabulary of sonic/psychological stimuli expressed in the form of
melodic, rhythmic and timbral contrasts and similarities, resolved and
unresolved dissonances, modulations, delayed resolutions, repetitions,
patterns and so on. Ultimately, macro-rhythms of both music and film,
as well as of other arts, deal with establishing relations between the
details and the whole, the rhythmical distribution of dynamic and static
aspects of the form.
In the same way that micro-rhythm is defined by the relationships
between durations and accents and is conditioned by the process of
grouping, so macro-rhythm is regulated by the distribution of structural
accents and depends upon our ability to make connections between
temporally distant stimuli. According to the definition given by Lerdahl
and Jackendoff (1983), structural accents in music are points of gravity,
the positions of which articulate the boundaries of groups both at the
phrase level and at all larger grouping levels. It means that they usu-
ally occur at the ‘attack points of the structural beginning and cadence’
(p. 31). Transposed to film, the term ‘structural accent’ might refer to
those points of gravity that have either a significant narrative or for-
mal function (editing joins between scenes or sequences accentuated by
fadeout, fade-in, wipe and so on; the blank spaces dividing scenes as
in Jarmusch’s films) or both (the hip hop montage sequences of drug
consumption in Requiem for a Dream). Even the relationships between
56 The Musicality of Narrative Film

downbeat and upbeat, which are generally associated with continuous

metric (micro-)rhythm, can be applied to the concept of macro-rhythm.
As Cone (1968) argues, every tonal composition can be viewed as a vari-
ation on a single rhythmic form – an extended upbeat followed by its

Just as, in a normal musical period, the antecedent phrase stands in

some sense as an upbeat to the consequent, so in larger forms one
entire section can stand as an upbeat to the next. And if, as I believe,
there is a sense in which a phrase can be heard as an upbeat to its
own cadence, larger and larger sections can also be so apprehended.
A completely unified composition could then constitute a single huge
rhythmic impulse, completed at the final cadence.
(Cone, 1968, pp. 25–6)3

The relationship between constituent elements of the larger form that

Cone is describing is crucial for ensuring the sense of flow associated
with musicality. The same principle relates to narrative forms and the
interdependent relationship between tension and release which makes
resolution the creator of a new tension. The need for balancing tension
and relaxation also requires that the general formal flow creates motion
between events of large density or complexity and those of sparseness
and simplicity. In some cases, though – or even styles, such as certain
strands of minimalism – the eschewing of structural dynamism in order
to establish a monotonous form in terms of macro-rhythm may be a
conscious decision consistent with artists’ philosophical and aesthetic
While the basic rules of structural rhythm apply to all arts regardless of
their medium, it is worth noting that structural rhythm in film is more
difficult to control than in other art forms because it involves not only
aspects of plot and dramatic action (as in literature or drama), but also
matters of abstract formal organization (as in music). It means that the
reception of dramatic content in a film will be influenced as much by
the choice of narrative style as by the organization of the mise-en-scène
and its internal rhythm or the external rhythm created by editing. Thus,
bearing in mind its complexity, which includes both the literary aspects
of the narrative and its audio-visual embodiment, the analysis of a film’s
macro-rhythm, in order to be fruitful and sensible, has to focus on the
devices that penetrate all layers of the medium’s expressiveness which
contribute to the large-scale canvas of macro-form.
The Rhythm of Rhythms 57

One of the most comprehensive methods for establishing rhythmic

relations on the macro scale is the creation of patterns. The presence of
patterns is not in itself a guarantee that the structure of a certain art form
will be recognized as rhythmic; in order to be perceived as rhythm those
patterns have to be among the agents generating the involving power
of form, which includes formal expectations and conventions. At the
same time, the creation of patterns is unimaginable without the use of
repetition, a procedure indispensable in almost any attempt to create
a large-scale form and certainly essential in the process of establishing
rhythm both on the micro and macro scales.

Repetition as a structural and a musical device

The very attempt to compare film to music in terms of structure pro-

vokes the question: how can film be equated with music when music
relies so much on repetition, which doesn’t seem to be the case with
narrative film? Repetition is one of the essential compositional devices,
one of the main sources of the pleasure we derive from music and also
a significant instrument in the creation of large-scale form. Immediate
exact repetition, repetition with variation, remote repetition, or the rep-
etition of an ostinato that supplies the foundation for the development
of other musical voices – all these various forms of musical repetition
provide innumerable possibilities for its use in composing, making it
the simplest and yet one of the most powerful musical devices and one
of the most efficient methods in the creation of rhythmical macro-form.
For the largest part of Western musical history, the role repetition had in
the creation of rhythmic macro-form was realized either through imme-
diate or remote repetitions of whole sections. This fulfilled the ideals of
both symmetrical, proportional structures and the psychological need
for repetition in music.
According to Raymond Bellour (1981, p. 103), film also benefits from
and utilizes repetition like any other art form. Bellour argues that
classical film unfolds through an ‘ordered network of resemblances’
(‘rhyming’ effects) which define themselves on the level of micro-form
(through internal repetitions of style or story material) and macro-form
(using parallels with other segments of the same size). At the same time,
repeated references to certain story events are among the narrative con-
ventions that help to construct a coherent fabula. Research in cognitive
psychology has revealed that repetition decreases the time required to
recognize or identify an item. It has also confirmed that repetition can
58 The Musicality of Narrative Film

serve to establish networks of associations of related concepts (Cohen,

2002), which is as important for the comprehension of large-scale forms
in music as it is in film. As David Bordwell reminds us:

Repetition can heighten curiosity and suspense, open or close gaps,

direct the viewer toward the most probable hypothesis or toward the
least likely ones, retard the revelation of outcomes, and assure that
the quantity of new fabula information does not become too great.
(1997, p. 80)

Different kinds of repetitions and the diversity of their employment

are some of the most telling indicators in distinguishing musical tra-
ditions of different cultures or even different traditions within one
culture. Unlike in goal-oriented Western music based on the principles
of tonal functional harmony, repetition in African and Asian music is
less a device for the creation of macro-form than the most essential
compositional device in general. More importantly, repetition here is
concerned more with issues of musical time than matters of musical
form. As Christopher Small points out in regard to certain traditions of
African music in which short phrases sung by the leader and answered
by the chorus can go on for hours, the function of these repetitions is
‘to dissolve the past and the future into one eternal present, in which
passing of time is no longer noticed’ (quoted in Rose, 1994, pp. 66–7).
Repetition has been a particularly significant subject in the recent his-
tory of Western music. During the avant-garde turmoil in music at the
beginning of the last century, composers suddenly felt that within the
new languages of atonality and serialism, repetition was ‘aesthetically
inexcusable’. Although tendencies of this sort were strong all the way
through the 1950s and 1960s, one of the pioneers of new music, Anton
Webern, realized as early as 1932 that ‘It’s obvious that this doesn’t work,
as it destroys comprehensibility,’ (quoted in Storr, 1997, p. 171). To be
precise, serial music actually uses repetition even more strictly than non-
serial music – repetition or variation of its own serial patterns, be they
in the spheres of pitch, duration, dynamic or timbre, or all of them
together – but the main difference here is that these patterns cannot
be perceived as a Gestalt, like a motif or a melody, nor do they depend
on tonal relations or a regular metric structure recognized by the ear,
so that even where there are repetitions involved, they are not recog-
nized as such. Deprived of both repetitions and hierarchical dimensions
of rhythmic and melodic structure, the listener is likely to focus on non-
hierarchical aspects of structure, such as timbre and dynamic. As Lerdahl
The Rhythm of Rhythms 59

and Jackendoff notice, ‘the relative absence of hierarchical dimensions

tends to result in a kind of music perceived very locally, often as a
sequence of gestures and associations’, which consequently obscures the
arches of a large-scale form and its rhythm.
While Schoenberg and supporters of the Second Viennese School
viewed repetition as an unacceptable submission to conventions, Igor
Stravinsky, on the other hand, built the hypnotic power of his Rite
of Spring (1913) upon repetitious ostinato patterns. Theodor Adorno’s
unreserved support for Schoenberg and critique of Stravinsky’s use of
repetition as the ‘passive acceptance of the most barbarous elements of
encroaching totalitarianism’ (McClary, 1998, p. 15) brought this very
simple and oldest of musical devices to the centre of a compositional
and social moral debate in the 1920s. Adorno’s negative view of repeti-
tion in the context of music’s role in society was inherited and further
discussed by Jacques Attali (1985) who stated that repetition of both
popular and ‘serious’ music through its mass production transforms
music into a commodity, depriving it of any meaning and generally
complying with the rules of late capitalist society. Although Attali’s
arguments were hardly concerned with repetition as a compositional
technique but rather as a symptom of industrialized, ‘repetitive soci-
ety’, Tricia Rose (1994) justifiably argues that their focus on repetition
as an ‘industrial condition’ encouraged mischaracterizations of cer-
tain popular musical forms, particularly those of black cultural origin.4
As Adorno’s view of Stravinsky’s work was extremely insular, so contem-
porary ‘social’ interpretations of popular musical forms sometimes fail
to acknowledge that their privilege of repetition might as well be part
of black cultural inheritance or Eastern influences in their view of musi-
cal time, not just the result of industrialization or modern technologies
applied in composing the music. Nevertheless, due to globalization, the
growing influence and popularity of World music, the significant impact
that African-derived music practices of African-Americans have had on
the development of popular music in the 20th century and in many
way as a backlash to the restrictive rules of serialism, repetition has
remained one of the most significant compositional tools in music and
the principal device for creating a large-scale form.
Unlike music, film, since its birth, has been associated with indus-
trialized society and popular culture. Inherently lacking the ‘aura’ of
authenticity and uniqueness that Benjamin ascribed to ‘genuine’ art,
film became a symbol of the 20th-century’s appetite for mass produc-
tion and populist tastes. And yet, repetition in film has always been
subject to rigorous narrational rules, although for other reasons than
60 The Musicality of Narrative Film

those behind the restrictions on repetition in contemporary music. The

most representative product of mainstream cinema – classical narrative
form – is usually forward-moving, goal-oriented and favours fast-paced
development which naturally minimizes any obvious duplication of
material. Most importantly, repetition posed a threat to the ‘invisibil-
ity’ of classical narrative. It had to be justified or motivated by the plot,
for example when a protagonist remembers a certain event or repeatedly
talks about it.
The repetition of the opening few shots at the end of a film has been
a common occurrence in cases when the story is told in flashback. It is
also an inevitable part of a flashforward, since a glimpse of the future
inserted into the ‘present’ eventually becomes repeated within its natu-
ral temporal context, as is the case with the vision of the protagonist’s
funeral in Don’t Look Now (1973), which is first seen as a premonition
and then is repeated as the conclusion of the story. Also, it is not unusual
for classical narrative to suppress or withhold information important
for understanding an event that might be central to a story, and then
‘release’ that information while replaying certain moments of it or the
whole of the event. The Matrix Reloaded, for instance, starts with the
vision of a dream which, acting as a premonition, introduces suspense
into the narrative, while its later repetition as part of the story brings a
surprising twist in the shots following the part we have already seen at
the beginning of the film.
Examples of immediate repetition are much rarer and usually a sign
of a musically conceived form as is the case with Jonathan Glazer’s film
Sexy Beast (2000). Rhythmic patterning permeates so many levels of its
narrative with visual and sonic rhymes that the film almost pulsates
with a regular beat. This is particularly the case in the scenes featur-
ing the film’s forceful and unpredictable villain Don Logan, played by
Ben Kingsley, whose job is to persuade Ray Winston’s retired criminal
Gal to commit to one more heist. Kingsley’s extraordinarily menacing
and intimidating performance partly draws its power from the rhythmic
quality of his lines,5 to which Kingsley responded with an almost per-
cussive delivery.6 Glazer sometimes emphasized this aspect of Kingsley’s
performance with a similarly rhythmic mise-en-scène and editing, and
sometimes he allowed the words to ‘do the dancing’.
In the montage sequence in which Don pressures Ray Winston’s char-
acter by telling him that powerful crime boss Terry Bass is behind the
plan,7 the main rhythmic effect is produced by using devices other
than music, namely, by employing repetition on three different levels
of audio-visual structuring: in single lines, dialogue exchange and in
The Rhythm of Rhythms 61

the editing. At the beginning Logan repeats everything Winston’s char-

acter says, creating a kind of antiphonal dialogue, in which repetition
becomes a tool of intimidation and enforcement:

Gal: I’d do anything not to offend you, but I can’t take part. I’m not
really up to it.
Don: Not up to it?
Gal: No, I’m not.
Don: I see.
Gal: I’d be useless.
Don: Useless?
Gal: I would be.
Don: In what way?
Gal: In every fucking way.
Don [leaning towards Gal and saying in a quiet, menacing way]: Why
are you swearin’? I’m not swearin’.

The following montage sequence which switches back and forth

between the present and flashbacks is introduced with a similarly repet-
itive line (Don: ‘I know a bloke, who knows a bloke, who knows a bloke.
Now, you know this bloke/Gal: Do I?/Don: This is a bloke you know,’).
During the sequence, editing takes over the rhythmicizing role by creat-
ing visual and sonic rhymes between the shots of Don, Gal and the third
character, a guy called Stan, who tends to emphasize his statements by
repeating his own words (‘Good boys, gotta be good boys. Reliable, pos-
itive attitude. That’s very important. Very important,’). His repetitions
are further ‘rhymed’ in the montage by being repeated by the other two

Don: Who’s behind this, Stan?

Stan: Who do you think?
Don: Who do you think, Gal?
Gal: I dunno. Who?
Don: Who?
Stan: Teddy.
Don: Teddy?
Gal: Teddy Bass.

Like in the Requiem for a Dream montage sequence, the music accom-
paniment is consistent but assigned to the background, producing a
grid of regular pulsation for a polyrhythmic counterpoint created from
62 The Musicality of Narrative Film

spoken words and images switching between three different charac-

ters and three different timelines (the present, flashback and flashback
within a flashback). The resulting momentum is adequately force-
ful, leaving little doubt that Logan will not leave Gal alone until he
completes his task.
This last example is particularly indicative of new musical tendencies
in contemporary practice, not only because of the rhythmicized edit-
ing of both sound and image but also because traditionally speech has
been one of those aspects of film that was treated as a purely narrative
device responsible for conveying important information rather than as
an element of ‘audio-visual scoring’.
Telling a story from several different points of view also gives an
obvious reason for repeating certain parts of the narrative content.
Akira Kurosawa used this approach in the unsettling exploration of
subjectivity in Rashomon (1950). Since then, the general tendency to
reshape time-space relationships in contemporary representational arts
has inspired many more unconventional treatments of temporality in
classical narrative, including fewer restrictions on the use of repetitions.
Telling a story from various points of view, so that the experiences of dif-
ferent people are used as necessary pieces of a story-puzzle which is put
together just at the very end, has become quite a popular storytelling
structure in Hollywood, applied as enthusiastically in teenage TV soaps
(Dawson’s Creek, Season 3, episode 20, 2000) as in feature films (Jackie
Brown, 1997; Go, 1999; Elephant, 2003). Structures conceived in this way
are unimaginable without repetitions that are usually arranged in such
a way as to shed new light on a previously witnessed event.
This trend was partly inspired by the huge success of Tarantino’s Pulp
Fiction in 1994, with its circular narrative and overlapping presenta-
tion of certain events that inspired more adventurous approaches to
the principles of film storytelling, although it is only fair to acknowl-
edge that Jim Jarmusch used the same device of intersecting stories
as far back as 1989 in his Mystery Train. By telling three interrelated
stories non-chronologically, separating them into three self-contained
pastiches, Pulp Fiction creates a narrative jigsaw puzzle where not only
are certain scenes repeated but also all three stories follow the same
pattern: they all start with long conversations not necessarily con-
nected to the ensuing events, and they all include or build up to
disturbing violence, finishing with a note of almost calm reconcilia-
tion. Obviously, using a non-chronological structure enabled Tarantino
to not only seduce the audience with the surprises and pleasures
of non-conventional narrative, but also emphasize patterns of genre
The Rhythm of Rhythms 63

storytelling. At the same time, he made sure that going back to previ-
ously shown scenes or re-encountering characters in different contexts
gave a new dimension to familiar events. A similar result is achieved
through repetition in Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), although
this film is an extraordinary example in the sense that its story is told
backwards in segments. Each successive segment finishes with the rep-
etition of the scene that began the previous segment, always putting it
in a new context and giving it new meaning. As in music, repetition in
these films is used with the intention of shedding new light on famil-
iar material, except that in film its significance is more purposeful, not
relying on purely abstract appreciation triggered by recognizing previ-
ously presented material as in music, but also functioning as a narrative
Unsurprisingly, this type of repetition is rare in films based on classi-
cal principles of narration, if one does not consider recurring musical
themes and leitmotifs. Non-Hollywood cinema, however, has a long
tradition of utilizing repetition for poetic, musical and affective pur-
poses in the areas of narrative, visual editing and soundtrack. The
Russian formalists were among the first to employ ‘pronounced paral-
lelism and a recurrence of images’ with a poetic function, as argued
by Viktor Shklovsky (1998, pp. 65–6) in his analyses of Dziga Vertov’s
A Sixth Part of the World (1926) and Vsevolod Pudovkin’s The Mother
(1926). Examples also include Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) and
October (1928) in which, respectively, repeated shots of maggoty meat
served to sailors and overlapping shots of rising bridges and troops with
upraised rifles gain the function of ‘refrains’ (Bordwell, 1997, p. 249).
The use of sound effects as refrains has naturally been applied even
more widely across different genres and traditions. From the haunting
ringing of the phone in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America
(1984), or the sound of water in Tarkovsky’s films, to the sound of
a cocking gun that punctuates Harmony Korine’s drug-fuelled, sexual-
ized reverie of violence without consequences in Spring Breakers (2012),
diegetic sounds have readily given themselves to fulfilling both struc-
tural and affective purposes. Even spoken language has been musicalized
through repetition as – again – in Spring Breakers, where the further the
story departs from reality, the more the dialogue is transformed into
chant-like refrains.
With its patterns of recurrence, music by itself has the potential to
influence the formal framework of film, thus constituting one of the
major factors in the creation of macro-rhythm. The effect of its repeti-
tions is dramatically amplified, however, when combined with narrative
64 The Musicality of Narrative Film

and visual refrains, as is evident in Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love
(2000). Kar-wai’s film explores the relationship between Mr Chow (Tony
Leung) and Mrs Li-zhen Chan (Maggie Cheung) who are neighbours
spending a lot of time alone because of the frequent absences of their
respective spouses. In the first part of the film the theme of loneliness
is represented by an audio-visual refrain embodied in repeated scenes
of Chow and Li-zhen going to a noodle shop for a ready-made dinner,
often meeting each other on the stairway leading to the shop. The vari-
ations on the theme are provided by changeable weather conditions,
their points of encounter and different flower patterns on Li-zhen’s ele-
gant dresses, but the refrain of Li-zhen gracefully sliding through narrow
passages and apartment corridors towards the shop is always played
in slow-motion and accompanied by Umebayashi’s same melancholy
waltz, which in the process becomes the theme of Chow and Li-zhen’s
relationship of friendship and suppressed desire.8
After discovering that their spouses are having an affair with each
other, Chow and Li-zhen start seeing each other more, ‘rehearsing’ per-
formances of courtship that emulate the affair of their spouses. This new
aspect of their relationship is punctuated by the repeated use of Nat King
Cole’s version of ‘Aquellos Ojos Verdes’. The ambiguous nature of their
secret meetings is emphasized by the fact that the audience does not
know whether the gestures and words of their courtship are ‘real’ or part
of their emulating game, until they are repeated as if they are rehearsing.
In the course of these meetings they also start rehearsing confrontations
with their adulterous spouses and even their own goodbyes.
As it unfolds in patterns of repetitions and variations, the film devel-
ops the rhythm and pulse of poetic stanzas with clearly defined refrains,
or as one critic described it in musical terms, a ‘sensual valse triste that
circles themes of fidelity and sincerity in relationships before resolving
itself into a requiem for a lost time and its values’ (Rayns, 2000, p. 14).
The other purpose of the repetitions is, in Wong Kar-wai’s words, to
show the process of change:

Daily life is always routine – the same corridor, the same staircase,
the same office, even the same background music – but we can see
these two people changing against their unchanging background.
The repetitions help us to see the changes.
(Rayns, 2000, p. 17)

This means that repetition and its effect in this film are marked
by a contradiction similar to the dual nature of repetition in music,
The Rhythm of Rhythms 65

which can be both a source of monotony and the generator of formal

development. A touch of paradox is also provided by the fact that the
structure of this film, which is so crucially dependent on repetition,
is eventually revealed to be about the earthly weight of time lost and
chances missed – the recognition of ‘how short all our lives are, and
how we behave as if the excitement or the pain of each moment is the
precursor to an infinite supply of such moments . . . rather than one stage
of a finite, and very short history’ (Bradshaw, 2001).
As these examples show, repetition is not so rare a structural device
in narrative film as commonly thought. Although the existence of nar-
rative makes it much easier to make the connection between the use
of repetition in literature and film than between music and film, some
of the above cases show that music and film also share many of the
structural and affective functions of repetition. When used at strate-
gic structural points, repetition with or without variation can have the
same effect in film as in music: to give proportion to the form, to throw
new light or give new meaning to familiar material and to intensify our
affective response to it.
It is also interesting to note that, after the attempt of the 20th-century
musical avant-garde to avoid repetition altogether, its return to Western
classical music has been either highly excessive (as in the repetitive
music of minimalism) or slow and carefully measured. The taken-for-
granted expectation of repetition with the function of a reprise has
become a thing of the past, or the exclusive property of popular music
forms. Film practice, on the other hand, is showing signs of an increas-
ing interest in the use of repetition with various structural and aesthetic
functions that affect the perception of macro-rhythm. This means that
the difference between contemporary forms of film and music in terms
of their understanding and employment of repetition with rhythmical
purpose is narrower today than ever before. As the following sections
about the use of patterns in film will show, this difference is still

The power of patterns

Human perception of reality is defined by the Gestalt principles of

pattern-making. Our mind organizes seemingly unconnected visual,
auditory and temporal perceptual data into units that link together into
comprehensible wholes. Our need to organize perceptive stimuli into
patterns is so prominent that, according to Gestalt laws, we make units
and accents even when there are none: we even perceive the ticking of
66 The Musicality of Narrative Film

a clock through patterns of strong and weak beats although they are all
the same.
If it were not for its ability to adapt itself to the world through a
Gestalt perception of patterns, the mind would be overwhelmed by a
profusion of perceptive stimuli and would experience only chaos. The
organization of chaos into patterns is something that brings unstruc-
tured things closer to our understanding, makes them recognizable,
open for experience. Moreover, as Anthony Storr (1997, p. 168) remarks,
this disposition to pattern-making is active at every conceivable level
in our mental hierarchy, influencing not only the simplest auditory
or visual perception but also the comprehension of the most complex
intellectual concepts. It has been employed in the creation of philo-
sophical and belief systems, it defines the way we understand the world
and also, unsurprisingly, how we construct and perceive art. Artistic
expression originates in the realms of intuition, feeling and sensation
but needs reason to find an articulate form, and pattern is the most
natural and stable appearance of reason at work. The use of patterns
facilitates the establishing of rhythmic relations between formal con-
stituents, which generally enhances the accessibility of a work’s content.
Thus, once again, we come across that intersection of ‘mathematicism
and hedonism’, the sensuous and the intellectual, the perceptual and
the cognitive aspects of art embodied in the patterns of artistic form.
Pattern-making is unimaginable without the use of repetition. The
main differences between a repetition that does not create a pattern
and one that does are in the functional value and meaning that the
latter produces. All music forms are based on patterns of some kind,
although only patterns in Western music are by definition hierarchical,
which means that they are usually arranged in such a way as to cre-
ate more complex structures than they are individually. Western music
forms are built on micro-networks of patterns articulated as motifs and
phrases, while their large-scale structures are based on macro-patterns
of sections and movements or, in serial music, on the combinations of
serially organized parameters. Micro-patterns rely on co-dependent rela-
tionships between pitch and duration that are, together with harmony,
primary parameters of pattern-forming. If one of those parameters
changes noticeably, the pattern also changes, while changes in register,
dynamic, tempo or instrumentation do not influence the recognizability
of the familiar pattern.
The principles of pattern organization on both micro and macro
levels are determined by the rules and conventions of a particular
style. Conventional forms resulting from those patterns have naturally
The Rhythm of Rhythms 67

undergone numerous adjustments and ‘makeovers’ throughout the his-

tory of Western music. However, the same principles of communicable
form can be found in the most primitive binary and ternary music forms
as well as the most complex ones: the principles of creating rhythms of
tension and release, alternating sections of density and sparseness and
the rhythm of formal expectations and anticipations.
In film, the process of creating patterns is generally located in the
realm of narrative structure. Bordwell reminds us that ‘narrational pat-
terning is a major part of the process by which we grasp films as more
or less coherent wholes’. The basic pattern is represented by the fab-
ula (story), which is ‘the developing result of picking up narrative cues,
applying schemata, framing and testing hypotheses’ (1997, p. 49).9
However, the intention to emphasize certain aspects of a narrative or
generate an affective response to it may result in the conscious construc-
tion of a ‘rhythmical’ macro-form in a film that also involves patterning
in the editing and creation of the mise-en-scène, as was shown in the
example of Wong Kar-wai’s film and will be discussed further in the
following sections. The reasons for this kind of rhythmical patterning
are varied, and again they are usually created to fulfil certain narrative
demands or to convey a particular message. Nevertheless, these rhythms
of patterning are governed by the same rules of macro-form that are
active in music, namely they follow the same principles of alternating
sections of tension and release, conflict and resolution, anticipation and
its fulfilment.
The audio-spectator’s involvement with form is also dependent on
his/her prior experience and understanding of the conventions of form
and of the medium itself. By recognizing certain relations in what has
been perceived and by being able to anticipate – in the most general
terms – what will follow, undoubtedly gives one a firmer orientation in
the temporal space of the art form. This means that in music one is right
to expect section B to follow section A, succeeded by the eventual reprise
of section A in a minuet or a scherzo, or the exposition of two themes,
their development and reprise in sonata form. Familiarity with the con-
ventions of a genre or a certain film style can also help the perceiver
to judge quite easily his/her position within the temporal or dramatic
scheme of the work. As the screenplay manuals suggest, a typical main-
stream feature is founded on a three-act structure in which act one
introduces a problem for the hero, act two presents the extended strug-
gle with the problem, while act three brings the solution to the problem.
Kristin Thompson even offers a temporal breakdown of the narrative
mainstream structure, additionally dividing three acts into four large
68 The Musicality of Narrative Film

parts and an epilogue. She notices that the Setup, the Counter setup
or ‘Complicating Action’, Development and Climax all approximately
last 25 to 30 minutes, followed by a short Epilogue which confirms the
stability of the situation and ties up subplot strands (Bordwell, 2006,
pp. 35–8). It is obvious then that with such clearly mapped-out conven-
tions of formal development it is easier to grasp temporal perspective
within the form of a Mozart sonata or a film based on the rules of
Hollywood continuity style than, for instance, in works famous for
breaking certain conventions of structural/narrative organization, like
the music of Debussy or the movies of David Lynch, not to mention
more extreme examples of integral serialism in music or parametric
narration in film.
As both old and new art teach us, art consumers do not mind conven-
tions. They are perfectly happy when the ‘game’ is played by the same
rules over and over again, when the dominant gets its tonic resolution,
or a villain is punished by a good guy, because obviously our psychol-
ogy as art consumers appreciates dependable structure. The question is,
though, what happens when those rules are changed through the urge
of individual artistic expression? How do we get a sense of temporal or
any other perspective at all?
The answer to this question can be found in the fact that ‘events’ in
temporal art forms are often patterned in such a way that the expe-
rienced perceiver is able to make inferences about their connections
with preceding events and about how the events themselves might be
continued. Leonard B. Meyer says that understanding these ‘implicative
relationships’ is something we all do much of the time while listening
to music, reading a novel or just observing the world around us. Recog-
nized implications do not always have to be realized, but Meyer suggests
that most formal patternings in temporal arts are implicative signs
which the experienced observer knows how to interpret (1973, p. 111).
The ability to make implicative inferences is significant for both the
micro and macro aspects of an art form. Meyer claims that implicative
relationships between proximate events on the level of musical micro-
form are grasped with a kind of intuitive immediacy. Recognizing these
types of relationships on the macro level, though, demands a certain
experience and understanding of music. As Javier Alvarez (1989, p. 221)
admits, the composer cannot control the perception and reactions of a
listener, but what he can do is control the ‘flow of referential “clues”
presented to the listener and by that token modify the listener’s engage-
ment in the discovery of musical meaning’. The same principle can be
applied in other arts which, depending on the artistic medium, can
The Rhythm of Rhythms 69

choose ‘clues’ of vastly different character and significance for these

purposes. The point is that by controlling the distribution of referen-
tial clues and the rhythm of their emergence, one takes control of both
structural rhythm and the key to its meaning. And that is where the
power of pattern on the macro level becomes most obvious.

The musicality of narrative and editing patterns

As Bordwell tells us, the basic pattern of a film is embodied in its story
(fabula) and plot (syuzhet). But the key to interpreting certain aspects
of this blueprint and our affective response to it is usually situated
in the net of sub-patterns spreading through different layers of the
film’s narrative structure. In Ray Lawrence’s Lantana (2001) for instance,
the narrative is structured in such a way as to uncover secrets hidden
beneath patterns of everyday lives. Lantana tells its story of relation-
ships under strain by following several narrative strands about different
couples whose lives intersect, but uses repetitions and patterns to rein-
force its structural foundations and amplify the resonance of its themes
through repeated refrains and formal symmetry.
After establishing the life and relationship patterns of its protagonists
by depicting their repeated activities – leading or attending psychother-
apy sessions, jogging in the morning, salsa dancing, taking the kids to
school or going to work – the film focuses on an extreme moment of
their existence when the normal patterns are abruptly broken by the
disappearance of the psychiatrist played by Barbara Hershey. Suddenly,
all the other lives are abruptly disrupted as well: some characters miss
their therapy sessions with her; some are involved in the investigation;
some find themselves in the roles of witnesses or suspects. These dis-
ruptive events stretch between the borders of the plot as a moment
of suspended time flow, when all routines are upset and the normal
‘breathing’ of people’s lives is interrupted. However, while these daily
routines are disintegrating and chaos is taking over the characters’ lives,
the structure of the film holds on firmly to its own patterns through
a net of repetitions, patiently building its own blueprint of symbolic
images and conversations.
From the disturbing opening shot revealing the body of a dead girl in
lantana bushes, the whole film is punctuated by repeated images of this
plant whose beautiful flowers hide a thorny undergrowth, connecting
all the threads of the story and also acting as a general metaphor for
the secret lives of seemingly happy, healthy relationships whose inner
thorns will eventually tear them apart. Another ‘rhyming effect’, as
70 The Musicality of Narrative Film

Bellour calls it, which in music would be achieved through the appear-
ance of a refrain or reprise, is here realized through the repetition of
conversations and telephone messages recorded on tape during the first
part of the film, and then replayed during the course of the second part,
restating utterances of grief, fear and despair that have marked the lives
of its characters, but also declarations of love that will save some of those
Apart from the patterns woven by the threads of the plot, sub-patterns
can also be created by different visual aspects of the mise-en-scène, con-
sistency in architectural design, choice of costumes, style of acting and
use of background noise and music, as is the case with the film In the
Mood for Love, where all these patterns are augmented by the repeti-
tions and variations in the dialogue. When patterns of sub-structure are
less explicit they can be identified and accentuated by editing which, as
Walter Murch suggests, is ‘right at the heart of the whole exercise’ of this

Putting film together is, in an ideal sense, the orchestrating of all

those [underlying] patterns, just like different musical themes are
orchestrated in a symphony.
(Quoted in Ondaatje, 2002, p. 10)

In Requiem for a Dream, for instance, one of the functions of edit-

ing is to expose the force of addiction by creating patterned montage
sequences of drug consumption which are repeated throughout the film.
In Takeshi Kitano’s Dolls (2002) though, editing patterning is used with a
more pronounced poetic purpose, responding to the theme of obsessive
love with different techniques of formal rhyming.
Kitano’s film is structured as a triptych in which the stories are con-
nected thematically and intersected formally, exploring the subjects of
love, guilt, regret and obsessiveness.10 Although the film is set in con-
temporary Japan, the extreme choices its characters make, which are
apparently justified by love (or ultimate selfishness, which Kitano sug-
gests as a more appropriate reading of their actions), are more typical of
the stories of Mouzaemon Chikamatsu, the famous 17th-century writer
of Bunraku plays, which provided the original inspiration for Kitano’s
Dolls.11 Kitano uses different visual, musical and structuring devices to
emphasize the theatrical origin of his inspiration and the poetic aspects
of the three stories, without commenting on them: the stories are pre-
sented against the background of the four seasons, which have a certain
symbolism within the Bunraku tradition; the colours in the striking
The Rhythm of Rhythms 71

landscape shots are artificially enhanced; the beggars are dressed in

vibrant robes by famous designer Yohji Yamamoto; and the tragic events
are underscored by a melancholy musical theme.
Particularly interesting in this context is Kitano’s approach to editing
which realizes the idea of poetic form by establishing formal patterns
and rhymes on different micro and macro levels. The most striking is the
micro-pattern which presents a scene in a form that resembles a poetic
stanza by repeating shots of arresting visual details (a red paper butterfly
on the ground, a red plastic toy on the pavement) or by repeating the
penultimate segment of a scene at its end, as a refrain is repeated in a
poem. This approach is used for the first time in the scene where, during
his wedding to his boss’s daughter, Matsumoto (Hidetoshi Nishijima)
finds out about his ex-fiancée Sawako’s (Miho Kanno) suicide attempt.
The shot in which he hears the news from his old friends (‘Choosing
success was so important? Sawako chose suicide.’) is followed by a minia-
ture montage sequence showing Sawako in distress and lying on a bed
after she overdosed on sleeping pills. After a short segment that brings us
back to the present, showing Matsumoto getting into his car and head-
ing to the hospital, the montage sequence with Sawako is repeated in an
expanded form punctuated twice by repeated shots of her friends telling
Matsumoto the news (‘Sawako chose suicide.’ ‘She won’t recognize you
Another approach used throughout the film establishes rhyming con-
nections between different temporal dimensions of the story through
flashbacks or by giving us brief glimpses of moments that are still to
come. Sometimes these shots are disturbing, having the apprehensive
air of premonitions, but most of the time they just ‘announce’ moments
that are about to come, skipping chronological order for a shot or two
until they are repeated in their proper temporal context, establishing a
rhyming effect with their previous appearance.12 Finally, although the
film is based on three independent stories, the first is established as
the dominant one because it continues between and even intersects
the other two, generating an atmosphere of melancholic doom and
providing the main material for formal patterning.
The most interesting aspect of Kitano’s mode of patterning is his
approach to repetition, which consciously or intuitively thrives on a
logic typical of poetic or musical forms, particularly on those occa-
sions when he introduces shots prior to their chronological place before
repeating them in their correct narrative context. With this method
Kitano plays down the ‘semantic weight’ of shots that is normally
bestowed on them by the narrative, and focuses on their ‘affective
72 The Musicality of Narrative Film

weight’ which is enhanced once the shot is repeated in its proper tempo-
ral context. Thus, Kitano’s employment of visual refrains, while different
from the method used by the Russian formalists in connection with
whom the term ‘visual refrains’ was originally used, employs a simi-
lar reasoning and achieves effects which easily conform to Shklovsky’s
criteria for a film constructed on poetic principles.
What this chapter has sought to demonstrate is that the creation of
macro-rhythm and its significance in the perception of, and the involve-
ment with, a completed art form is a matter equally important to both
music and film. The analogy between music and film does not rely solely
on the comparison of common parameters such as time and rhythm but
also on the use of similar structural devices like repetition and pattern-
ing. In the same way that the Gestalt laws of perception and principles
of pattern-making transform the chaotic world of perceptive stimuli
into a familiar vision of reality, so do the formal patterns of music and
film convey specific content through their structures, creating accessi-
ble works of art. As we have seen, the complexity of patterning and
the co-dependence of music parameters in the creation of micro- and
macro-rhythms in music have their counterparts in film’s similarly com-
plex network of patterns and sub-patterns that permeate the planes of
narrative, editing and mise-en-scène. And similar to the way in which
the hierarchical nature of our disposition for pattern-making facilitates
our ability to comprehend more complex intellectual concepts, cer-
tain modes of film structuring are able to transcend the concept of the
particular, reaching the broader realm of the poetic and universal.
Both music and film are able to employ repetition not only for struc-
tural but also for affective purposes, and both can exploit the dualistic
nature of its involvement in macro-rhythm, which makes repetition as
much an element of the dynamic as of the static aspects of form: rep-
etition can be involved in the creation of balance, symmetry and the
proportional distribution of structural accents and at the same time it
can introduce a sense of movement, progress and intensification in both
arts, proving itself as one of the most effective devices in the creation of
Musical and Film Kinesis1

One of the reasons for the extensive discussion about rhythm in the
previous chapters was to investigate the most obvious common denom-
inator of music and film, as both arts share distinctive traits in this area.
However, beyond the comparison of similarities of rhythmical structures
on the micro and macro levels in the two arts lies another reason for
this discussion, as there is another purpose to rhythm itself: the sense of
movement it generates.
The idea of musicality that rests on the concepts of flow and mor-
phing naturally includes movement as the source of all flow. As was
mentioned in Chapter 1, most scholars not only agree that music
is perceived as motion, but also that musical motion may be ‘the
quintessential factor in music, the aspect of music to which all else
is ultimately subservient, the aspect that in turn “moves” us in our
affective experience with music’ (Epstein, 1995, p. 5). The intriguing
link between motion and emotion has been explored by music psychol-
ogists who point out that the word ‘emotion’ comes from the French
word emouvoir, which means ‘to stir up the feelings’, while its Latin root
emovere literally means ‘to move out’. The expression ‘to be affectively
moved’ responds to the fact that a sense of motion underlies our emo-
tional life and it has its equivalent in the German word bewegt, which
is also used to describe physical movement. This interrelation between
sensuous and affective characterizes our experience of film movement
as well. Although movement in film seems more concrete than the elu-
sive movement of music, there are many similarities between the kinetic
aspects of these two arts which become apparent in the very attempt
to describe the nature or even define the meaning of the word ‘move-
ment’ in both. Also, what is almost always omitted in discussions about
film’s kinetic properties concerns the sonic dimension of film’s kinesis

74 The Musicality of Narrative Film

manifested in the presence of sound and music. As practice always

displays but theory rarely acknowledges, sound and music provide dis-
tinctive and certainly the most visceral aspects of film’s kinesis, which
are indispensable in film’s pursuit of musicality. This fact will be further
explored in the second part of this chapter after discussing aspects of
musicality in the movement within a shot and the external movement
of editing.

The illusion of movement

While most scholars agree that movement is an essential aspect of what

draws us to music, Susan Langer reminds us that musical motion is ‘a
semblance and nothing more’ (1953, p. 108), highlighting the para-
doxical fact that, although no-one disagrees that music is perceived as
motion, there is nothing in music that actually moves, at least not in
terms of a physical change of place. A similar paradox is found in film
movement. Although named from the earliest days and still known as
‘moving pictures’, film does not really employ the actual movement of
pictures but the projection of light against a series of still photographs
in quick succession – usually at 24 frames per second – which together
are perceived as a moving image. The reason for film’s amazing ability
to hypnotize its audience with the simple ‘dance of light’ thus lies in the
nature of our perceptual system and the fact that the projection of 24
photographs in one second, using the appropriate technological devices,
is interpreted by our brains as a continuous flow.
Originally, this phenomenon was explained by the theory of ‘persis-
tence of vision’, according to which an image lingers on the retina for a
fraction of a second after the source has vanished. A more recent theory
is more complex and concerns the rate at which light flashes during pro-
jection and the tendency of human vision to see movement where there
aren’t any moving objects, which Gestalt psychology explains using the
phenomenon of ‘apparent motion’. This general description of how film
produces the illusion of movement has satisfied the majority of film
scholars,2 while a consensus has not yet been reached on what might be
the source of the perception of movement in music.
Usually, the perception of movement in music is associated with
rhythm. After all, rhythm is based on periodicity, which is connected
to aspects of controlled, equally divided movement and measured tem-
porality. However, as the previous chapters highlighted, rhythm is not a
specifically musical phenomenon, which means that it cannot be solely
responsible for the ‘musical’ kind of movement.
Musical and Film Kinesis 75

The sense of movement in music is also ascribed to melody and the

fact that a melodic line can be perceived as having an upward or down-
ward direction. But, as Zuckerkandl (1973, p. 83) notices, melody is
composed of tones and these tones do not move anywhere either:

In melody we have nothing but stops, a stringing together of static

tones, and, between tone and tone, no connection, no transition, no
filling up of intervals, nothing. It is the exact opposite of motion.

Thus, it is our mind that makes a continuous melody out of a string of

tones, on condition that its pitches are closely related. In that way the
perception of music is very much analogous to the perception of film in
the sense that it presents us with a continuous flow where actually there
is none.
Of course, the impression of movement produced by melody might be
explained by the fact that tones have different pitches by which we can
distinguish one from another. However, Zuckerkandl, who is particularly
concerned with this topic in his book Sound and Symbol, does not accept
that as an explanation either because, he insists, this rationalization is
based on a fallacy that interprets pitches as ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ than one
another. According to him, we perceive them as such because of the
conventions of musical notation and our habit of using spatial relations
in music, but it is actually a particular dynamic quality of tones that
gives them the sense of direction that generates the perception of move-
ment in music. However, it is clear that what Zuckerkandl has in mind is
intrinsically connected with the concept of tonality and functional har-
mony imprinted even in simple unison melodies through the concept of
latent harmony. Outside the world of Western music and its tonal har-
mony that sense of direction that, according to Zuckerkandl, should be
inherent in tones is simply gone. Even certain types of Western music,
like pointillist atonal music, contemporary ambient music or music for
percussion can confirm this point. It is fair to say that atonal music
deprives its tones of a sense of direction (tonal or otherwise) but it cer-
tainly does not obliterate the sense of movement in music. Ambient
music, on the other hand, often eschews melodic content altogether,
generally relying on harmony and developing the ‘spatial’ dimension
of music through electronic devices for its effect. Another example of
music without melody generating a sense of movement is music per-
formed on unpitched percussion instruments. After all, one can imagine
rhythm without a succession of different pitches, but not a succession of
pitches without some kind of rhythm. This brings us to the conclusion
76 The Musicality of Narrative Film

that all these aspects of music – rhythm, melody and a sense of direc-
tion provided by functional tonal harmony – may be, and usually are,
responsible for the sense of movement generated by music.
The kinetic supply found in film is of a similarly ‘composite’ nature.
In addition to the basic illusion of movement generated by the projec-
tion of still photographs in quick succession onto the screen, film is
in possession of many more complex kinetic resources which include
the actual movement of people and objects on the screen, movement
of the camera, movement created by means of editing and movement
generated by the sonic aspects of a film and its score.
Despite similarities in the illusory and composite nature of movement
in music and film it is worth noting here that movement in film seems
more tangible because it is representational. One is actually able to see
people walking or trees shaking in the wind and, as Christian Metz
(1974, pp. 7–8) noticed, this movement on the screen is perceived as
real and happening in that moment, rather than as an image of past
motion. The illusion of present movement is so strong that, as the old
anecdote goes, in the early days of cinema people jumped out of their
seats while watching a film of an approaching train. Today’s audience is
more sophisticated, but the illusion of movement happening ‘now’ has
not lost any of its power and is still able to induce empathetic motor
and psychological reactions.
An additional aspect of movement within a shot is created by the
movement of the camera itself. Two of its basic movements – on an axis
(panning and tilting) and across a space (tracking) – give the viewer a
privileged point of view of the diegetic world by changing his/her per-
spective on passing objects and events and expanding the information
about cinematic space and events. The distance between the camera and
the object, and the speed of the camera’s movement affect the general
impression of a picture’s inner dynamic while the framing of an action
influences our perception of its kinetic direction as much as the action
itself (Bordwell, 1993, pp. 223–6). This flux of kinetic forces supplied
by the combination of mobile framing and movement on the screen is
augmented by means of editing.
However, all these similarities between the nature and means of actu-
alization of movement in music and film would not be significant or
worth exploring if there was not another connection between them,
the elusive yet undeniable bond between these two arts, the reason and
inspiration for all analogies which concern the underlying purpose of
movement in both arts. As Epstein explains in relation to music:
Musical and Film Kinesis 77

It is motion, with its correlated affect, that makes ultimate sense

of the music, that ultimately guides, indeed dictates, the direction
of music, the nature of its flow. In this respect motion subsumes,
integrates, and provides the broadest context for all other musical
(Epstein, 1995, p. 457)

While Epstein here refers specifically to musical movement as the

source of flow and the way in which music fulfils its purpose, it does not
demand a great stretch of the imagination to recognize that his descrip-
tion can be applied to film as well. Epstein (1995, p. 9) also reminds
us that the sensation of motion in music is ‘deeply connected to our
emotional experience of movement and, more abstractly, to our feelings
themselves’. The ability of movement to generate an affective response
to music3 is an important issue in this context as a similar significance
to the fluency of movement has been given to the kinetic aspect of film.
Still, it is important to note here that, in the same way that we cannot
single out one aspect in either music or film as being most responsible
for creating the sense of movement in that art, so the affective response
to either music or film cannot be traced back or reduced exclusively to
that art’s kinetic properties. Nevertheless, the diversity and richness of
film’s kinetic resources suggest that in this aspect of film lies the heart
of its affective capacity.

Musical movement within a shot

A long take with continuous camera movement (tracking, Steadicam

or handheld camera) has always been regarded as a device with strong
‘musical’ potential which provides not only kinetic fluidity but also ‘a
kind of visual analogue to the form of the music’ (Kolker, 1999, p. 34).
Some of the most virtuosic examples include the opening shot of Orson
Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) and the four-minute shot in GoodFellas
(Martin Scorsese, 1990) during which the tracking camera follows Ray
Liotta’s and Lorraine Bracco’s characters as they walk from a street into
a nightclub through its back door, down the steps and through the
kitchen into the club. The same tour-de-force has been repeated many
times since, but usually within a context that makes such long shots
a striking exception.4 However, Gus Van Sant makes the long tracking
shot the norm in his Death Trilogy films Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003)
and Last Days (2005).
78 The Musicality of Narrative Film

Elephant was inspired by the Columbine killings that shook America

in March 1999 when two teenagers, without warning or apparent
motive, walked into Columbine High School and killed 12 of their
schoolmates and a teacher before turning their weapons on themselves.
Van Sant tells the story though the points of view of several different
characters, including the killers, by literally following them with a cam-
era through the school corridors and around the playgrounds. He makes
a point by covering the tragic incident in a deliberately non-dramatic,
almost documentary style. Three-quarters of the film pass by depict-
ing quotidian, uneventful episodes that precede the moment when
the school children will become victims or murderers. In long track-
ing, or Steadicam, shots the camera follows each of the characters for
five or six minutes continuously, their strolls through the corridors and
school grounds only occasionally interrupted by dialogue. All our senses
are directed towards visual movement and the ambient sounds created
from the curious mixture of foregrounded foley, pre-existing music and
musique concrète. The result is quite absorbing, not least because of the
latent tension which builds up underneath the innocuous surface: these
lengthy shots manage to immerse viewers in their own kinetic momen-
tum, inducing the same grip as usually achieved by the kinesis of music.5
Although the focus on the protagonists’ movements makes the motion
of the camera almost invisible to the viewer, it is obvious that the musi-
cal flow of its tracking shots – shot by Harris Savides who was Director
of Photography in all the Death Trilogy films – is attained by combining
different kinetic sources, including sound.
This fascination with diegetic kinesis provided by images of people
simply walking while being observed by a tracking camera had been
explored even further in Van Sant’s previous film Gerry, a story about
two friends who, in the search for a mysterious ‘Thing’, get lost in a
desert. Like Elephant, Gerry is loosely based on a true story. However,
seemingly unconnected long tracking shots and sporadic dialogue in
Elephant are found to be interrelated after all as they head towards the
same tragic culmination, while Gerry seems to be absolved from the lim-
itations of any causal plot, unabashedly focusing on the process of the
search and the exploration of cinematic kinesis and spatio-temporality.
According to Van Sant himself, the initial inspiration for adopting this
approach came after watching Béla Tarr’s seven-hour-long Sátántangó
and being fascinated by its ‘timing’ and the fact that the more one
watches certain simple actions like walking, ‘the more they grow in their
illumination’ (Gonzales, 2003). Gerry not only pays an open homage
to the Hungarian director’s trademark shots of lengthy walks known
Musical and Film Kinesis 79

among critics as the ‘Tarr trudge’ (Brooke, 2009, pp. 54–5) but goes even
further by keeping physical movement the primary focus of cinematic
attention throughout the film. Its continuous tracking, or Steadicam,
shots generate repetitive visual and sonic movements which chart the
slow disintegration of Gerry’s protagonists, juxtaposed with mesmerizing
images of moving clouds and stunning landscapes.
A particularly striking example of this is a three-minute-long scene
showing the two Gerrys (played by Matt Damon and Casey Affleck)
walking beside each other through the desert, their two heads bounc-
ing in phase, out of phase, then in phase again (0.45.28–0.48.47).6 The
bobbing of their heads in close-up is accompanied by the continuous
crunching sounds their feet make on the ground, the synchroniza-
tion and rhythmic diversity of visual and sonic movement creating a
distinctly musical effect. The fact that the sonic aspect of the scene’s
musical effect is produced simply by the sound of walking brings to
mind the aesthetics of musique concrète, which here is considered in
post-Schaefferian terms and therefore not bound by Pierre Schaeffer’s
original demand for ‘reduced listening’ which insisted on disregard-
ing external associations that might arise from sounds used in musique
concrète works. At the same time, considering that the consistently
rhythmicized visual movement is an integral part of the scene’s musical
effect, it seems sensible to describe it using the term audio-visual musique
In terms of its micro- and macro-rhythmic structures, temporal orga-
nization and general atmosphere, the film also evokes principles of
repetitive minimalist music. Gerry’s formal structure is based on repe-
tition and variations of patterns consisting of images of scenery and
two men walking through the desert, which are interrupted only by
occasional short dialogue breaks. The time spans of these patterns are
extended and their nonlinearity emphasized as much by the circular
motion of the characters as by the film’s repetitive structure. Although
there is always something moving within the frame of the picture –
actors, clouds, animals, day turning into night and vice versa – the
general impression left by this film is of directionless movement and
suspended time, as in minimalist music, so it is appropriate that the
only music used in the film is that of the ‘holy minimalist’ Arvo Pärt.
With their restrained rhythmic and harmonic vocabulary, simplicity
of expression and overall tendency towards temporal stasis, Für Alina
(1976) for solo piano and Spiegel im Spiegel (1978) for piano and violin –
among Pärt’s first works to feature what would become his trademark
‘tintinnabuli’ style7 – make a sonic contribution to creating a sense
80 The Musicality of Narrative Film

of timelessness around the two figures stuck in a temporal and spatial


Musical movement of editing

Movement on the screen and movement of the camera are by the

nature of the film medium complemented by the movement provided
in the process of editing. A cut from one shot to another constitutes a
movement in itself, while the accumulation of these cuts through the
editing process establishes a kinetic momentum of its own. Of course,
the significance of editing goes far beyond providing kinetic flow and
even beyond its primary function of putting pieces of film together
into a coherent whole: editing has also been an important ideological
tool and a prime component of cinematic style. As was discussed in
Chapter 3, editing is also one of the main contributors to the creation
of film rhythm but, bearing in mind the distinction that has been made
between internal and external rhythm, one might reasonably wonder,
how do these two types of rhythm get ‘in tune’ to secure the smoothness
and fluidity of film’s flow? According to Walter Murch, an editor and
sound designer whose craft lies behind some of the most iconic scenes
in contemporary cinema,8 to answer this question one must consider all
the sonic and visual aspects of film. Sharing some of his ‘trade secrets’
with Michael Ondaatje in The Conversations and in his own book In the
Blink of an Eye, Murch analyses the process of editing with the same
patience and detail which he applies to the process of editing itself,
arguing that every film imposes a specific rhythm of cutting through
its own content:

. . . you’re working with the rhythms of the actors, and the rhythms
of the camera moves. You are internalising everything – the rate of
the speech of the actors, how they deliver their lines, how they are
physically moving in the space, how the camera is or is not moving in
the space. You are taking all this into consideration, and that is what,
over a period of time, allows you to begin to assimilate and learn the
particular language of this film. What’s the rhythmic signature of this
scene? And then, of the whole film?
(Ondaatje, 2002, pp. 270–1)

Murch’s comment elucidates why fluent editing cannot only be about

external rhythm. In acknowledging the significance of all aspects of
internal rhythmic movement on both the micro and macro levels of the
Musical and Film Kinesis 81

rhythmic structure as well as the sonic content of a film, Murch makes

it clear that the external rhythm of the cut is practically ‘extracted’ from
the internal rhythm of the shot, directing both into a unified flow.
By immersing himself in the material in the way Murch suggests, the
editor can discover the inner breathing of a film and help to release
its flow.
A similar attitude can be recognized in Jarmusch’s comment that he
experiences the process of editing as an opportunity to allow the film to
take him to a ‘Zen-like place where the film starts telling you how to cut
it’ (Macaulay, 2001, p. 150). Both Murch’s and Jarmusch’s remarks sug-
gest the existence of a quality that coincides with what Deleuze (1992,
pp. 21–3) calls ‘the general movement’ of a film. A similar quality can
be found in music whose general movement is expressed though its
rhythmic content and tempo indications. The general movement of
film, I would suggest, is established through the interplay of the internal
and external rhythms of movement within a shot, camera movement,
editing and its sonic content.
Of course, while equating the process of editing with a ‘Zen-like place’
is more than appropriate for Jarmusch as it reflects the pace of his
films which unfold in long shots punctuated by blackouts, in more
action-driven films the editing would be expected to reflect the urgency,
anxiety and adrenalin of the content, which is exactly what Martin
Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker managed to convey in
films like Raging Bull (1980) and GoodFellas (1990) that claim some of the
most celebrated editing sequences. The latter is particularly famous for
the part in which Ray Liotta’s coked-up character, Henry, rushes through
the town on a manic, paranoid drug-and-arms-dealing spree, while also
trying to supervise the cooking of a family dinner over the phone. How-
ever, the feeling of panic and drug-induced paranoia is not conjured up
solely through rapid editing, at least not in the sense of slicing up the
scene into numerous fragments before putting them back together in a
jagged manner. The power of this sequence comes from the choice of
images and the striking combinations they make – as in the repeated
juxtapositions of Henry’s sweaty, panicky face in close-up with shots of
a helicopter that he thinks has been following him the whole morning –
and by fuelling these images with a similarly restless soundtrack assem-
bled from 1970s songs. The fact that the songs interrupt each other,
introducing sudden changes in rhythm, tempo and character, reinforces
the sense of frantic energy in the scene.
However, Hollywood practice shows that the prevailing tendency
among filmmakers is to use editing as an isolated, ‘external’ tool that
82 The Musicality of Narrative Film

is meant to imbue the film with kinetic power on its own. As Chris
Hodenfield (2002, p. 44) says, it is too easy to simply blame MTV cul-
ture for this, because in reality the introduction of digital editing has
been even more influential. Instead of the tedious process of threading
up reels on an editing flatbed and splicing fragments manually, digital
equipment can rip up a whole film and create several editing versions
at the stroke of a few keys. This kind of technology opens up possibili-
ties for previously unimaginable creative games with images and sound,
which directors like Oliver Stone (JFK, 1991; Natural Born Killers, 1994)
and Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!, 2001) have used to design films of
stunning kinetic momentum. But more often than not this technology
ends up in the hands of lesser talents who are simply complying with the
rules of the ‘glimpse culture’ without noticing that, although their 4000
cuts per film will certainly bring a frenetic pace, this is not a guarantee
of achieving a rhythmic form, let alone musicality.
At the same time, what is often overlooked in discussions about
dazzling editing is the use of sound, without which most of these
sequences would not have the same impact. The fight scenes in Raging
Bull, for instance, employ the virtuosic editing of action-takes inter-
sected with details shot from different angles and drenched in buckets
of water, sweat and blood that drip in slow-motion. But, as Scorsese
himself admits, ‘the best thing we did, though, was to drop the sound
out completely at certain moments. Silence, then suddenly the punch
goes flying – whack! It became like scoring music . . . ’ (Thompson and
Christie, 1996, p. 83). These sound effects of punching, which were
made by recording rifle shots and melons breaking, provided the film
with a more than visceral animation of the fight scenes. They provided
Scorsese with the rhythmic accents for audio-visual composing.

Audio-visual motion and emotion

Like Murch and Scorsese, who never fail to consider sound and music as
important contributors to film’s kinesis, Sergei Eisenstein ([1943] 1986)
also paid particular attention to this issue, believing it to contain the
key to understanding the structural laws of both arts, their similarities
and potential for synthesis:

If one speaks of genuine and profound relations and proportions

between the music and the picture, it can only be in reference to
the relations between the fundamental movements of the music and
the picture, i.e., compositional and structural elements . . . . (p. 128)
Musical and Film Kinesis 83

Here an understanding of the structural laws of the process and

rhythm underlying the stabilization and development of both pro-
vides the only firm foundation for establishing a unity between the
two. (p. 129)

This quote from Eisenstein’s article ‘Synchronization of Senses’ reflects

well the filmmaker’s general enthusiasm for viewing different artistic
media through their similarities and common denominators. In the
same article Eisenstein argues that movement in poetry is embodied
in rhythm and metre while in paintings it can be created by means of
changing nuances within the light or the colour composition, unfolding
volumes and distances as well as shifting densities or alternating linear
and spatial elements. He recognizes a similar diversity of means in film
where the movement of visual composition is complemented by actual
movement within the frame and the succession of edited pieces.
And yet, Eisenstein’s focus on movement as a common denominator
between music and film, or rather the way it was famously applied in the
analysis of the ‘Battle on the Ice’ sequence from his film Alexander Nevsky
(1938), left him vulnerable to justifiable criticism not least because
the interpretation of this principle in many ways contradicts his other
theories of film and audio-visual synthesis. It is worth reminding our-
selves here that Eisenstein’s understanding of the unity of music and
image does not necessarily presume that its constitutive elements are in
‘consonant’ harmony (p. 72). He is famous for advocating conflict or
‘collision’ as a productive way of stimulating the intellect and creating
new meaning from opposing images and concepts.9 At the same time,
he believed that a filmmaker should strive to achieve an inner synchro-
nization between the image and the meaning of the picture, its content
and its sound. And that is where he found it necessary to focus on move-
ment as the unifying element that lies at the core of the structural laws
of both arts:

We are speaking of a ‘hidden’ inner synchronization in which the

plastic and tonal elements will find complete fusion.
To relate these two elements, we find a natural language common
to both – movement. Plekhanov has said that all phenomena in the
final analysis can be reduced to movement. Movement will reveal
all the substrata of inner synchronization that we wish to establish
in due course. Movement will display to us in a concrete form the
significance and method of the fusion process.
(1986, p. 70)
84 The Musicality of Narrative Film

In order to demonstrate this theory, Eisenstein discussed in detail the

first 12 shots of the sequence ‘Battle on the Ice’ from Alexander Nevsky.
His analysis of the diagram which graphically presents the linear move-
ment of the music and the visual movement in different shots has been
often criticized for overlooking certain aspects of the psychology of per-
ception, both visual and aural, so there is no need to go over that again
here.10 What this example tells us is that identifying movement as the
common denominator for music and film does not solve the problem
of establishing a consistent methodology for the investigation of audio-
visual movement – if that is possible at all – because synchronization
between sonic and visual components constantly fluctuates between
various audio-visual levels. It also makes it clear that the analytical pro-
cess is inevitably influenced by different interpretations of the content
because, like Eisenstein, I believe that the interaction between music
and image in the opening shots of ‘Battle on the Ice’ is very effective,
but for different reasons from those identified by the director.
Instead of emphasizing the movement in the musical content of the
analysed scene as Eisenstein does, I would point to its predominantly
static character attained through the repetition of a four-beat phrase
(2 + 2) which is itself built on sustained notes in the flutes, second
violins and double basses, punctuated only by the rhythmical ticking
of a single note in the violas sul ponticello. In the first seven bars the
only motion is achieved through a tremolo-coloured cello part, suc-
ceeded by a clarinet melody. The dynamic force in the scene is generated
mostly through a gradation of the visual content: the ‘tonal movement’
is achieved through a gradual lighting up of the figures on the rock
while dynamism is introduced by alternating images of the horizon
upon which the enemy is to appear with those of the Russian army
lined up under a rock face and close-ups of soldiers whose faces clearly
reflect tension. From that point of view, the most insightful aspect of
Eisenstein’s analysis is the section which explains the scheme of visual
and musical movement between takes III and IV:

I believe that this motion can also be linked with the emotional
movement. The rising tremolo of the cellos in the scale of C minor
clearly accompanies the increasingly tense excitement as well as the
increasing atmosphere of watching. The chord seems to break this
atmosphere. The series of eighth notes seems to describe the motion-
less line of troops: the feelings of the troops spread along the entire
front; a feeling which grows again in shot V with renewed tension in
Shot VI.
(Eisenstein, 1986, p. 139)
Musical and Film Kinesis 85

What is interesting in this segment of Eisenstein’s analysis is that

he does not interpret audio-visual synthesis as a consequence of the
‘complete correspondence between the movement of the music and the
movement of the eye over the lines of the plastic composition’ (p. 139),
as suggested in other parts of the analysis; instead, he emphasizes the
build-up of tension as the basic affective quality achieved through the
simultaneous action of both the aural and visual layers in the scene.
The effect of juxtaposing musical stasis with visual kinesis also res-
onates with Eisenstein’s often expressed belief – embodied in his idea of
audio-visual counterpoint – that the basic precondition for realizing a
synthesis which involves different artistic media is for each component
to express what the others cannot. One could argue that by combin-
ing musical stasis and visual kinesis the described autonomous musical
material, which is not necessarily experienced as ‘tense’, becomes such
when fused with the picture, creating a charge between the static and
the dynamic. It also means that the affective power of this scene does
not depend on the synchronization of the movement of music and
the movement generated by elements of the visual composition, as
Eisenstein suggests in other segments of this analysis, but rather lies in
the merging of their independent attributes.
If one was prone to generalizing implications from this example, the
conclusion would be that, regardless of the kinetic content in either
music or image, the visual element is the one that provides relevant
narrative information while the music is the part which supplies emo-
tion. After all, a number of psychological experiments have confirmed
that the movement of music stimulates visceral as well as emotional
responses in the listener,11 while the movement of abstract images them-
selves will not have the same effect. However, this conclusion would be
erroneous in the same way as was Mitry’s differentiation between music
and film rhythm which overlooks the fact that sound and music are
constitutive parts of film as much as visual elements are and that it is
the combination of the aural and the visual that creates film’s kinesis as
well as its affective impact.
Undoubtedly, music is universally respected for its ability to elicit
emotions either on its own or in the context of film, but that is cer-
tainly also the attribute that is most abused in the film industry. Music
has much more to offer to film than the basic affective resources usu-
ally exploited through clichéd employment designed to provoke only
certain kinds of emotional responses. It is certainly the most valuable
asset that film can employ for awakening its own musicality. Not only
does music represent film’s ‘ultimate extra-diegetic source of kinesis’ as
Claudia Widgery (1990, p. 143) argues (and not only extra-diegetic, we
86 The Musicality of Narrative Film

should add), but it also changes the perception of visual movement by

adding sonic rhythm and a sense of continuity to it. As the previously
quoted observation by Edgar Morin (1967, p. 63) points out, ‘each thing
in a film [already] sings’ but it is ‘the role of the music . . . to accentuate
that singing, so that it can finally reach our sense of hearing’.
As well as allowing quicker access to emotional responses than images,
and being able to add a visceral dimension to emotional experiences,
music and sound empower the kinetic potential of film and enable it to
release its own musicality, as will be demonstrated in the next section.

The kinesis of audio-visual interaction

The ability of music to transfer its kinetic attributes to moving pictures

is part of the reason why music has been accompanying film from its
very beginnings, its ‘correlated affect’ (Epstein, 1995, p. 457) a wel-
come bonus that film would explore enthusiastically in the succeeding
decades. However, film’s audio-visual kinetic energy is not only gen-
erated by music transferring its kinetic attributes to pictures. As was
previously mentioned, more often than not it is harvested from different
sources including speech, camera movement, movement within a shot
and editing, as evident in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (Der Himmel
über Berlin, 1987).
On one level Wings of Desire is a story about Berlin before the fall
of the wall explored through the themes of memory, history, identity
and desire. On another, it is a love story about an angel who decides
to renounce eternal life in order to experience human love and life
with its physicality, sensuality and mortality. The main source of kinetic
momentum in Wenders’ film is the camera movement.12 From the very
first shot the camera is established as the omniscient, omnipresent eye
of the angels who live invisible beside the Berliners, listening to their
thoughts but unable to interfere or help them in any way. In the first
sequence in which the angels Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto
Sander) wander through Berlin’s sky, the minds of its inhabitants and
the soundtracks of their lives, the camera glides through the air, lurk-
ing around apartments, coming in and out of windows, descending to
the ground and into cars, creating the feeling of an uninterrupted flow
despite the existence of discrete seams between the shots. Fascinating
aerial shots and virtuosic but nevertheless consistently elegant camera
movements are paired with Jürgen Knieper’s original score which itself
blends with the music coming from apartments and radio-transmitters
and the inner monologues of the Berliners.
Musical and Film Kinesis 87

Another important source of musicality in this film is the language

of Peter Handke’s screenplay. Its poetic manner of expression is intro-
duced at the very beginning when we hear the voice of the angel Damiel
reciting a poem which celebrates childhood and its innocence, frag-
ments of which are repeated throughout the film. This lyrical aura is
transferred even to the language of human beings embodied in the frag-
ments of their thoughts and inner monologues overheard by the angels
and additionally poeticized by Alekan’s striking shots of nature and the
cityscape and by the celestial glide of his camera. An illustrative example
of their interactive ‘transfer of attributes’ (Cook, 1998) is the moment
when Damiel attends to a dying motorcyclist and, trying to allay his
fear of death, encourages him to start chanting his own ‘hymn’ of famil-
iar names and places (0.34.36–0.37.30).13 At the beginning of the scene
the motorcyclist is in the centre of the shot, while the camera gently
pans to his left and right, as if swinging to the rhythm of his chanting.
When a friend of the dying man shows up at the scene of the accident
Damiel leaves, followed by the camera through the city streets, railways
and tunnels and into the cloudy sky. The roll-call of words and phrases
is continued by a voice-over celebrating small, quotidian details of exis-
tence, their ‘ordinariness’ transformed by the proximity of death and
Damiel’s point-of-view shots into audio-visual poetry.
The musical quality of the language in Wings of Desire also comes
from the fact that the stream of the ‘city’s consciousness’ embodied in
the inner monologues of the Berliners flows almost incessantly past the
angels, endowing the film with the same kinetic power of sonic con-
tinuity that is usually provided by the presence of music. Its latent
musicality flourishes into an actual musical cue in the library scene
(0.15.41–0.20.00) transforming the murmur of inner thoughts and read-
ing into the sound of a mixed choir. The opening sound in this scene
is that of whispering and speaking voices: fragments of sentences and
books that people are reading overheard by the angels in the library.
The fact that spoken words are suddenly replaced by the sound of a choir
was surprisingly interpreted by most scholars as a non-diegetic musical
source that alludes to the angels’ divine origin (Garwood, 1999, p. 236;
Davison, 2004, pp. 149–56). I would argue that the choral music here
features as a poetical, ‘musical’ representation of the content harboured
in the library’s countless aisles full of books. It is the sound of human
creativity, knowledge and memory heard from an angel’s omniscient
perspective. Its origin is not divine but, on the contrary, particularly
human. The fact that its sound is inaccessible to human beings does
not mean that its cinematic source is non-diegetic, because it is clear
88 The Musicality of Narrative Film

that Damiel and Cassiel are attentively listening to it, enchanted by its
beauty. The modal colours of the score might function as a ‘depiction of
the angels’ utopian vision of a time long past’, as Davison argues (2004,
p. 150), but in this case they could also allude to the timeless character
of the content of the library represented by this music.
The cue starts with a sound of a synth-pad as at the beginning of
the film when Damiel is watching Berliners from the top of a cathe-
dral. In both cases its sustained quality is undoubtedly associated with
the ethereal world of the angels but is always blended with the sound
of speech, and in the library scene is joined by the voices of a mixed
choir. Several solo parts recite syllables or words on one note, evoking
the process of reading, thus suggesting that the angels hear the sounds
produced by humans as music. The changes in density of the music’s
texture that alternates between solo and choral fragments, and the dra-
matic shifts in dynamic give this cue a particularly spacious feel. The
impression that the voices/music are coming from different parts of the
library is emphasized by the gliding movement of the camera through
the aisles and between the shelves. At the moment when the framing
changes from medium shots of people sitting in the library to a long
shot of the inside of the building revealing several floors of shelves
and books, the solo chants are suddenly drowned out by domineer-
ing glissando-like crescendos evoking the full power of knowledge and
memory deposited there. The combination of camera movement, the
stream of spoken words, the fluency and spaciousness of the music and
the effect it has on Damiel and Cassiel, captured on their faces, make
this scene a striking example of cinematic musicality.

The musicality of cinema action

Owing to the widespread employment of digital editing and advance-

ments in audio-visual technology, in recent decades a new type of
musical audio-visual kinesis has become popular in cinema. The bullet-
time effect, computer-generated animation and 3D projection have
become common aids in film production, particularly in the action
genre, creating new possibilities with occasionally revolutionary results
and new types of audio-visual aesthetics. The combination of the raw
kinetic power of movement within a shot and technical innovations
involved in shooting and post-production have produced particularly
striking results in a new breed of Hong Kong and Chinese martial
arts films and in the Hollywood action movies they have inspired.
With characteristic postmodern disregard for the rules of ‘invisible’
Musical and Film Kinesis 89

apparatus and realistic narrative, these films have modified the conven-
tions of the genre to include parallel or non-chronological narration
and virtual reality, while focusing on style with an intensity atypical
of the action genre, creating in the process a new type of audio-visual
The model for employing revolutionary cinematic practices in the ser-
vice of creating a new type of audio-visual kinesis in action scenes was
set in 1999 by the first instalment of The Matrix trilogy. An unusual
hybrid of violence, philosophy, technology and spirituality, The Matrix
also features stunning action scenes in which virtuosic combinations
of external and internal rhythm are augmented by the effects of the
bullet-time technique of photographing action (see also Chapter 3). This
technique provided The Matrix creators not only with the tools for exe-
cuting groundbreaking representations of action on screen but also for
emphasizing their musicality. The possibilities of ‘moulding’ action and
camera movements by the usual means of editing were suddenly greatly
increased by the digital time-compression and time-expansion of every
movement in every shot. Additionally, by using dozens of stills cam-
eras and several movie cameras, each action could be photographed and
reproduced digitally in different ‘shapes’ (arc, spiral, ‘s’ curves), bring-
ing another kinetic dimension to the cinematic diegesis. Supplemented
with a heavy use of classical slow-motion, these action scenes proved to
be a source of highly stylized audio-visual composing.
The martial arts films that appeared in Taiwan and China at the begin-
ning of the 2000s – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Hero (2002)
and House of Flying Daggers (2004) – were not a typical B-movie crop
either, bearing the signatures of acclaimed art-house directors Ang Lee
and Yimou Zhang. Tellingly, many of them shared experienced martial
arts choreographers who oversaw the preparation and execution of their
memorable fight scenes. The action scenes in Crouching Tiger were chore-
ographed by Yuen Woo-Ping, one of the most celebrated Chinese martial
arts choreographers and film directors, who also worked on The Matrix
and its sequels The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions (2003), as
well as Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino) vols. 1 (2003) and 2 (2004). What
distinguishes the choreographed fights in Lee’s and Zhang’s films from
the Bruce Lee/Jackie Chan types of action is the fact that they were not
based on Shaolin but rather the Wudang style of martial arts which com-
bines physical skill and strength with spiritual practice. According to
the Wudang legends, the real masters of this art are able to defy the laws
of physics, which allows filmmakers to show them climbing walls and
roofs with elegant ease, skimming across water and having battles on
90 The Musicality of Narrative Film

the tops of trees, endowing their fight scenes with balletic gracefulness
and fluidity.
Ang Lee stresses that Yuen’s choreography is conceived cinematically
as it is to appear from shot to shot on screen, so that editing has lit-
tle influence on the final result because the action is ‘edited when it is
shot’ (Lee quoted in Kemp, 2000, p. 140). The action scenes in his film
Crouching Tiger are, without exception, paired with Tan Dun’s music so
that their kinetic charge is in most cases the result of an audio-visual
amalgam of choreographed movement and percussive accompaniment.
A memorable exception is the sword fight in the bamboo forest in which
exotic percussion instruments such as congas and the tar are replaced
by a lyrical solo on the Chinese bawu flute accompanied by string glis-
sandos, while the clashes of blades on the waving bamboo branches
are punctuated by close-ups in slow-motion, creating one of the most
elegant and poetic duels of the genre. The action scenes in Flying Dag-
gers and Hero employ less music and more editing and sound effects
than those in Crouching Tiger so that their audio-visual synthesis has a
slightly different consistency. Their tension is harvested as much from
the choreography as from the rhythmic combination of short detail
shots and the movement in slow-motion, while instead of continuous
drumming the action is punctuated by the noises of fighters gasping and
shouting, feet crunching and weapons hissing and slashing.
The approach to audio-visual composing in The Matrix is based on a
similar principle of combining rhythmic diversity with virtuosic edit-
ing of sound and image. The rhythm in the classic scene in which Neo
(Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) enter a highly guarded
Government building to save Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) is created
by combining action choreographed into fast exchanges of hits and bul-
lets and slow-motion shots of balletic martial-arts movements evoking
a highly skilled dance. The colour palette of the scene bears the usual
mark of the ‘Matrix reality’ with the walls, floor, the marble cladding in
the building and the uniforms of the security guards all tinted grey with
a nuance of green, while the black outfits of Neo and Trinity stand out
in every shot as visual magnets commanding the direction of visual per-
ception. The external rhythm of the editing establishes the musicality
of film kinesis not through constant movement but through its alternat-
ing with stasis and the strategic use of audio-visual accents that allow
the process of grouping to take place. These accents are distributed with
precision and to great effect, embodied in slow-motion shots of the pro-
tagonists in gravity-defying movements, or short detail shots slamming
Musical and Film Kinesis 91

into longer ones, or even moments of suspended action and complete

silence, as at the beginning of the scene.
The opening shot (1.36.50)14 shows the detail of Neo’s boots as he
enters the building, his steps synchronized with heavy, metrically regu-
lar beats of industrial-type noise. This sonic motif is repeated once more
as Neo puts a bag full of weapons through the security check, triggering
an alarm. Not expecting anyone to enter such a highly guarded building
armed, the security guard asks him to remove ‘keys and loose change’
from his pockets, at which moment Neo opens his coat wide, revealing
a minor armoury strapped to his waist and legs. The moment is both
humorous and dramatic, emphasized by one last thump in the score
followed by suspended action and complete silence. A similar moment
happens once more when a backup soldier shouts ‘freeze!’ at Neo and
Trinity and they pause to look at each other, again in silence. While it is
not unusual for silence to be the bearer of emphasis, its short duration
and placement within this scene literally funnel all the tension of the
suspended action into these moments, making this type of audio-visual
rest particularly effective. Like the shots in which one movement is pro-
longed by an extended slow-motion, these moments of silence act as
caesuras within the micro-form, marking a change of pace in the action
or accentuating moments of dramaturgical importance.
This example confirms once more, as does this whole chapter, the
necessity of employing a ‘dual strategy’ in addressing the problems
of comparative analysis between music and film. As much as music
and film as autonomous arts share common features relating to their
temporality, rhythmic structure and kinetic nature, there is no doubt
that the use of sound, and in particular music, is often instrumental
in film attaining that elusive quality that has been referred to here as
‘musicality’. Although the films discussed in this chapter provide a num-
ber of examples where musical attributes have been conjured up in film
on the strength of purely cinematic devices such as the movement of
characters, camera movement and editing, the most striking examples
are usually created in association with sound or music. On the other
hand, as the example from The Matrix shows, even a deliberate absence
of music can be used for musical purposes if applied as a rest in a densely
scored action scene.
The ‘moral’ of this chapter is the same one that Eisenstein began to
preach when sound film was just in its infancy, even though he himself
did not always apply it in practice: in film, sound and image should
not only be considered equal but also be employed in such a way that
92 The Musicality of Narrative Film

each always brings to the synthesis what the other is not capable of. This
seems obvious, but with a 100-year-long tradition of frequently referring
to film as a visual art/medium, analysing and criticizing it without the
slightest consideration of its sonic dimension or, on the other hand,
creating films in which music is used to simply duplicate visual content,
it does not seem excessive to repeat it now and again.
The Symbolic Nature of Musical
and Film Time

It might seem surprising that only after discussing the rhythm and
movement of music and film do we come to the subject of time which,
due to its all-encompassing nature, seems like a natural place to start.
However, I deliberately left this chapter to the end of the theoretical
discussion because the issues surrounding the subject of time are at the
core of not only art creation and experience but also the experience
of life itself. Time is one of those subjects that, being woven into the
most mysterious aspects of life’s fabric, naturally takes our discussion
about art into the realms of philosophy, aesthetics and, as we will see in
this chapter, even spirituality. Consequently, the comparative analysis
of music and film in this chapter will be only partly founded on sensual
and perceptual notions of musicality; of more pressing concern here
is the question of how certain philosophies of time influence similar
aesthetic approaches in both music and film.
As the experience of theorizing time has proved many times before,
the main challenge in pursuing a comparative temporal analysis
between two arts is to create a conceptual framework which can inte-
grate but not confuse different categories and concepts of time. The
nature of time has been explored through experiential and emotional
dimensions (St. Augustine), the intellectual dimensions of being in
time (Descartes, Henri Bergson), the relationship between time and
consciousness (Immanuel Kant, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger,
Jean-Paul Sartre), not to mention various scientific measurements of
time, and yet the only conclusion that can be drawn with certainty is
that its nature is complex and versatile, having many different facets
of which some appear to be exclusive of others. Aside from any sci-
entific or philosophical concepts, the direct experience of time is also
subject to personal, social, intellectual and cultural interpretations that

94 The Musicality of Narrative Film

influence our perspective of it. People in the West tend to be more pre-
cise about measuring time than some less technically oriented cultures,
while the study of temporal perspectives within one culture can pro-
vide insights into differences between social classes (Le Shan quoted
in Ornstein, 1969, p. 23; Kramer, 1988, p. 424), differing philosophi-
cal orientations (Grünbaum, 1973) or reveal diverse approaches to art
(Kermode, 1967).
This chapter will confirm that it is practically impossible to limit the
discussion about temporality in the arts to a single concept of time, not
least because both clock time and metaphysical time figure as equally
relevant categories, but also because of the dichotomy of time estab-
lished early on by Greek philosophers, which describes time as either
a succession/change/becoming or a duration/permanence/being. While this
dual nature of time is reflected in the crucial philosophical/aesthetic
issues around which the practices of music and film revolve, and will
inevitably permeate a comparative analysis of musical and film time,
this chapter proposes that the framework which can most flexibly
accommodate and integrate different concepts and manifestations of
time in both music and film is the notion of time as a symbolic aspect
of reality.

Time in music and film

Of all senses it is that of hearing which is inevitably associated with

our sense of time and few phenomena can tell us more about time and
temporality than music. Music is considered to be the temporal art par
excellence because its form comes to life in time. As a form in becoming,
music incorporates time, shapes it and gives it structure by making it
audible, while itself being simultaneously dissolved in time. Through
the creative act of composing/performing, time is transformed into the
musical body, the ‘dough’ which is shaped and brought to life through
Film, on the other hand, usually demands more than audible time to
come alive. It needs a ‘solid cluster of living facts’ embossed in time,
as Tarkovsky would say, but it is still time, ‘printed in its factual forms
and manifestations’, that is the substance of cinema, so that filmmaking
becomes ‘sculpting in time’ (1986, pp. 57–80).
The completed form of a film or a piece of music determines a certain
limited period of time and it can be argued that the duration of that
form is the form itself (Gostuški, 1968, p. 163). However, if we try to
ascribe an absolute value to the time contained on film stock or in a
The Symbolic Nature of Musical and Film Time 95

musical performance, we face an almost impossible task. Even though

our ‘measurement’ is limited to one particular referential system – a
completed piece of music or film – its temporal value keeps ‘spilling’
over the frames of the work. To start with, the duration of a musical
work can vary in different performances and even in the case of a per-
formance fixed on a recording one can argue, as Edward T. Cone (1968,
p. 16) did, that a musical work needs the frame of silence ‘to separate
it from its external environment – to mark off musical time from the
ordinary before and after it’. The temporal aspect of silent films is even
less definable – their durations weren’t even measured in minutes but
rather in metres or feet since they fluctuated depending on the speed of
their filming and projection.1
Things are even more complicated concerning the parallel existence
of what we call plot time, story time and screen time in film. According
to the distinction that Bordwell and Thompson (1993, p. 71) suggest, the
plot explicitly presents certain story events, while the story goes beyond
the plot in suggesting some events that we never witness. The actual pre-
sentation of the plot on the screen usually involves some manipulation
of time as well, and the given result is called screen duration or projec-
tion time. In the same way that plot time and story time may overlap
for most of the screen time, so can plot time and screen time overlap,
but not necessarily. Plot duration mostly corresponds to the time of
diegesis – the total world of the story action – although it might include
some non-diegetic images and sounds that are not part of the story but
may affect our understanding of it.2 Ultimately the temporal ‘bodies’ of
both film and music form resist measurement in absolute values thus
adding another aspect of elusiveness to their main characteristics.
Another similarity between film time and musical time can be found
in the relationship between the imprint of the creative time spent dur-
ing a work’s creation and the interpretative (contemplative) time of its
consumption (Gostuški, 1968, p. 279). Creative time is an obviously irre-
versible aspect of most art forms,3 while the experience of interpretative
time changes depending on the art and our approach to its consump-
tion. As Edward T. Cone (1968, p. 33) puts it, the silent viewing of
a spatial work is a kind of multiple performance or a multiplicity of
partial performances during which we can choose and change if neces-
sary our own pace and position of perception. For a piece of music or
film though, only a complete performance or screening can give a valid
insight into its form and composition. This statement sounds paradoxi-
cal, having in mind that our modern technical devices allow numerous
reproductions of all recorded musical pieces or DVD reproductions of
96 The Musicality of Narrative Film

films, but what is considered here are the ideal conditions of live music
performance or film projection, during which ‘a composition must pro-
ceed inexorably in time; we cannot go back to explain’ (Cone, 1968,
p. 34). In a performance/screening that honours these desired condi-
tions no repetitions or hesitations are allowed while the work is being
performed so that in both film and music the interpretative time is equal
to the time in which the work unfolds.
Within the confines of each singular form film is able to do what
seemingly no other art is capable of: to manipulate the order and dimen-
sions of its own temporal reality. The use of slow-motion, accelerated-
motion, flashback, montage sequences and other similar devices give
film the opportunity to explore and interfere with what is considered
the only unchangeable, irreversible aspect of our lives. However, while
the manipulation and multiplication of temporal dimensions might not
be as obvious in music as in film, certain non-Western musical traditions
and much of Western 20th-century music display these very aspects in
their production. Sampling and mixing in hip-hop music, interlocking
cycles of Javanese music that layer ‘time unit upon time unit, creating
not a single representation of music in time, but a web of voices moving
into and out of time’ (Bohlman, 1999, p. 29), even some basic formal
devices of tonal music such as repetition or reprise, represent potential
tools for manipulating temporal dimensions.
Chapter 4 reminded us how important repetition and reprise have
been throughout the history of music in establishing the most primitive
as well as the most accomplished proportional forms of Western music’s
heritage. Indispensable in music practices of every origin, repetition can
also be seen as a device that intrinsically defies the linear understand-
ing of musical temporality. If employed as a reminiscence, repetition can
acquire the meaning of a structural (César Franck’s cyclical form) or even
narrative ‘flashback’ (the programme music of Romanticism, Wagner’s
operas, etc.). Gostuški (1968, p. 280) also interprets the technique of
inversion in contrapuntal music of all periods as the manifestation of
the desire to overcome the limitation of music’s linear time direction,
the expression of the permanent longing for reversing the temporal
arrow and bringing back what is gone. According to Claude Lévi-Strauss
(1970, p. 16) though, music does not even need contrapuntal techniques
to exercise its ability to manipulate the arrow of time, since music itself
is ‘an instrument for the obliteration of time’, considering that the act
of listening itself ‘immobilizes passing time’ similar to the way the act
of watching a film immerses its viewers in time long ago arrested and
preserved by narrative.
The Symbolic Nature of Musical and Film Time 97

Generally, time is perceived as an elusive or even incomprehensible

entity that becomes more ‘real’ and palpable when structured by a work
of art. The fact that philosophers such as Edmund Husserl (1964) and
Henri Bergson (1999) have thought about music as ‘time made audible’
relates to time being considered as becoming ‘human’ when organized
after the manner of a narrative. Summarizing Ricoeur’s (1984) argument
about the ‘humanization’ of time in literature, Genevieve Lloyd (1993,
pp. 11–12) makes some observations which can easily be applied to film:

In virtue of its form, narrative brings together fragments of temporal

experience, allowing them to be grasped in a unity. Narrative gets it
all together, as it were, transforming the inchoate sense of form in
our experience of temporal fragments into poetic universals through
which we come to understand our experience of the particular.

These comments about the ‘humanization’ of time through a narra-

tive relate mostly to narrational styles in literature that are essentially
linear and the same can be said for film. Musical time, at least in the
West, has also been generally perceived as being linear, although the
substantial influences of Eastern art and philosophy on our culture dur-
ing the last century have left their traces in different musical styles,
from Debussy to techno music, introducing changes in both the com-
prehension and the perception of musical temporalities. In the next
section I will argue that inclinations towards emphasizing linear or
nonlinear aspects of temporality in either music or film are usually a
symptom of comparable philosophical or in some cases even spiritual

Philosophical and spiritual dimensions of linear

and nonlinear time in music and film

The generic duality of linear and nonlinear time in music, as Jonathan

D. Kramer (1988) points out, corresponds roughly to the philosophi-
cal distinction between becoming and being. As the idea of becoming
is found most prominently in the linear logic of Western philosophy
and science, so is linear temporality typical of Western tonal music. The
functions of different pitches in tonal music are determined by their
relationship to the tonic, which is endowed with ultimate stability. The
linearity of tonal music is characterized by a move towards a point of
great tension that is usually remote from the tonic, followed by a return
to and confirmation of the basic tonality. Western music can also be
98 The Musicality of Narrative Film

defined as essentially dialectical since its ‘development follows from the

presence of a conflict between opposites and finally leads to a situa-
tion of synthesis, in which conflicts are entirely or partially resolved’
(Mertens, 1994, p. 17).
The very use of the term ‘dialectical’ in regard to classical forms of
Western music also brings to mind Eisenstein’s idea of using montage
to create conflict on all levels of the audio-visual narrative which is
resolved by the emergence of a new meaning. Eisenstein believed that
his dialectical style was ‘fully analogous to human, psychological expres-
sion’ (quoted in Bordwell, 1997, p. 14) but more than that, it was
analogous to a human understanding of time and life in the Judeo-
Christian philosophy based on the principles of linear temporality,
duality and dialectics. At the same time, the goal-directed listening of
dialectical music founded on traditional harmonic functional schemes
of tension and relaxation that lead to a directed finale or synthesis
can be compared to the narrative mode of classical cinema in which
a fabula is constructed along similar principles of causality that push its
characters towards set goals.
Classical narrative is by definition linear and plot-driven, with a clear
beginning, middle and end. Its forward-moving plot is organized to fit
into the conventions of a three-act structure proven to be the most suit-
able formula for charting the development of a character who, after
being confronted with a particular challenge, undergoes a transforma-
tion while overcoming his obstacles (Bordwell, 1997, pp. 157–8). The
principal device of classical narrative is the continuity style of editing
which was perfected during the formative years of classical Hollywood
precisely for the purpose of maintaining the illusion of linearity in story-
telling and for presenting the viewers with only that information which
is important for following the story and drawing specific conclusions,
thus also ensuring their passivity.
Nonlinearity, on the other hand, is associated with a different ideo-
logical framework and the cultural and philosophical concept of being.
In music, nonlinearity is manifested through the ideas of temporal con-
tinuum and harmonic stasis which were brought to Western music
through exposure to the art and philosophy of Eastern cultures on one
hand and the development of recording technology on the other. The
first wave of nonlinearity in Western music appeared with the emer-
gence of minimalism and repetitive music in America during the 1960s
and then in Europe in the 1970s. While the word ‘repetitive’ refers to
the main structural principle of this music and the word ‘minimalism’
refers to restrictions in the use of initial material and transformational
The Symbolic Nature of Musical and Film Time 99

techniques performed on it, the minimalist style certainly did not

put any limitations on the duration of pieces, which often unfold in
lengthy sheets of time, inducing meditative or trance-like experiences,
producing an effect which Jonathan D. Kramer (1988) calls ‘vertical tem-
porality’ which will also be apparent in film styles of corresponding
philosophical origin.
In the case of composers like La Monte Young and Terry Riley, the
search for music that does not have a ‘mediative function’ but rather
provides mystical experiences associated with ‘expanded time’ – as
opposed to clock-measured time – was undoubtedly the result of their
adoption of Eastern philosophy and art. As Wim Mertens explains (1994,
p. 92), ‘their idea of time is an empty one, and because of this no real
change can take place in their music, so that a higher level of macro-
time, beyond history is reached, which has been called now or stasis or
A similar sense of stasis permeates the musical style of tintinnabuli
devised during the 1970s by Arvo Pärt in his exploration of spiritu-
ality through music. Pärt’s self-imposed limitations on a tonic triad
as the basis of melodic and harmonic development, his reliance on
static rhythm and the renunciation of evolving thematic processes
were instrumental in his recognition as a leading figure of postmodern
(‘holy’) minimalism. On the other hand, the prevailing sense of tempo-
ral stasis in a musical context which relies on silence and contemplation
as much as on sonority exemplifies the approach in which a spiritual
undercurrent is part of the composer’s musical discourse rather than an
element of his extra-musical rhetoric.
The equivalent of vertical temporality in film is created through
extended duration in the type of cinema known as contemplative, or
Slow Cinema,4 which is generally perceived as an art-house opposition
to goal-oriented, dialectical, linear-narrative cinema. The aim of a sense
of temporal stasis in contemplative cinema is often motivated by similar
aesthetic, philosophical and spiritual concerns as in minimalist music,
justifying the use of the term ‘transcendental style’.5 However, while
repetition may be one of the principal constitutive devices of this style,
as in music, its sense of temporal stasis is more the result of a restricted
use of the manipulative techniques of editing and prolonged duration
rather than conscious evasion of linearity. The hypnoticism of this style
rests on a fascination with long static or tracking shots as in Béla Tarr’s
or Gus Van Sant’s films in which moments of suspended narrative lin-
earity allow the audience to experience a sustained moment of time, a
cinematically extended ‘now’.
100 The Musicality of Narrative Film

The aesthetics of contemplative cinema and its spiritual under-

pinnings, similar to those of minimalist music, were most famously
advocated by André Bazin whose main theoretical and aesthetic con-
cerns were founded on the belief that a film image is able to convey
the presence of the divine existing in the real world if that image is
facilitated by a sustained gaze uninterrupted by editing (Harvey, 1996,
p. 230). According to Bazin, if long takes with deep focus unfold in the
synchrony of screen time and story time, they can create a mise-en-scène
which can provide not only the most telling insight into the style of the
director who shot it, but also an insight into life itself.
A strikingly similar aesthetic and philosophical view about film and
film time was articulated by director Andrei Tarkovsky who, like Kant,
believed that time is a construction of the mind as well as a spiritual

The time in which a person lives gives him the opportunity of

knowing himself as a moral being, engaged in the search for the
truth . . . And life is no more than the period allotted to him, and in
which he may, indeed must, fashion his spirit in accordance with
his own understanding of the aim of human existence . . . The human
conscience is dependent upon time for its existence.
(Tarkovsky, 1986, pp. 57–8)

As Bazin believes in the deep gaze into space, so Tarkovsky believes

that by purely observing life and recording the passing of time, the hid-
den mysteries and meaning of life can be revealed. For him, feeling ‘the
pressure of time’ in the shot is not only the crucial aspect of film rhythm,
as discussed in Chapter 3, but is also the only way to experience ‘some-
thing significant, truthful going on beyond the events on the screen’
(p. 117). In that sense, time is considered as both an aesthetic and a
spiritual category, a ‘raw material’ of film, while duration itself becomes
a significant forming device which inevitably affects both audio and
visual aspects of film.
As was concluded in Chapter 3, the distinction between manipulat-
ing different aspects of film time by editing, or allowing time to run
through long takes, forms the basic aesthetic antagonism in cinema
comparable to the opposition between dialectical linear music and the
vertical temporality of minimalism. However, in the same way the line
between linear and vertical temporality in music sometimes seems to
be blurred by the force of the musical flow itself, so is the tempo-
ral chasm between the aesthetics of the shot and the cut somewhat
The Symbolic Nature of Musical and Film Time 101

ambiguous. As I argued in the discussion about the internal and external

rhythms, the pressure of time in film cannot be confined to frames of
one shot as it inevitably affects adjoining shots, thus sucking the process
of montage into its powerful flow, which contemporary representatives
of the aesthetic of the shot are more ready to admit now than Bazin or
Tarkovsky would have been. Jarmusch’s undeniable proclivity for long,
static shots clearly diverges from the dominant taste for fast editing and
yet, he often stresses how important editing is to his working process,
being the last phase of creation during which the film tells him ‘how
to cut it’ (Macaulay, 2001, p. 150). Analogously, a sequence of edited
images, however rapidly cut, inevitably creates another temporal dimen-
sion which encompasses those images. This dimension might not be
as susceptible to contemplation as time in long shots, but its jagged,
disjointed pieces speak eloquently about the nature of contemporary
time and reality. This contemporary shift in the cinematic represen-
tation and experience of time is vividly captured by Deleuze’s (2000)
concept of time-image through which time ‘presents itself in the pure
state’ (p. 271), neither being contained by a single shot, however long,
nor subordinated to movement.
After comparing the ‘philosophy of the shot’ articulated by Bazin and
Tarkovsky with the dominant practice of popular cinema, which is heav-
ily reliant on rapid editing and the overall manipulation of not only
time and narrative but also the audience’s emotional response, it seems
reasonable to claim that in essence this distinction represents more
than just the matter of aesthetics. For both Bazin and Tarkovsky their
aesthetic choices lay in the hope of achieving understanding through
contemplation or an ‘aesthetic way of knowing’, as Schopenhauer would
call it. Their aesthetics demand the ‘presence’ of the spectator in the
time and space of the film image in the same way Eastern philoso-
phy demands our presence in ‘nowness’, or nonlinear music ensures
our prolonged experience of it. As repetitive/minimalist music aims to
keep us suspended in vertical temporality, so Bazin and Tarkovsky – or
Béla Tarr and Gus Van Sant more recently – want us to stay with the
image until we become aware of ‘something significant, truthful going
on beyond the events on the screen’. In contrast, a focus on editing
as the principal narrative and expressive device encourages a more pas-
sive audience experience. Unlike the filmmakers of the Soviet montage
school who expected the viewer to invest a certain intellectual effort
in interpreting its messages,6 advocates of editing nowadays take us
along the narrow path of carefully predicted thoughts and responses
with the intention to impress, amuse and entertain. The conventions
102 The Musicality of Narrative Film

of today’s either ‘invisible’ editing practice or showy rapid editing do

not ‘leave time for the audience to reflect – or get bored’ (Bordwell,
1997, p. 165).
Nevertheless, it is obvious that both approaches, not the aesthetics
of the cut alone, carry an aspect of escapism. As Jacques Aumont points
out, the most alluring power of cinema is exactly the fact that the specta-
tor is both present in time and distracted.7 In that sense film’s escapism
is not much different from that encouraged by other arts since what
Schopenhauer calls the ‘aesthetic way of knowing’ relies on the hope
that the contemplation of beauty will secure temporary removal from
‘all our affliction’. On the other hand, the general notion we have about
the non-contemplative nature of contemporary montage cinema and
its tendency to encourage passivity in the viewer is not justified in every
instance. Some of the examples discussed in previous chapters, as well as
the following case studies, show that when editing is used imaginatively
and musically, aiming more for the ‘space between’ opposing aesthetic
approaches – the space concerned with rhythm, rhythmic patterns or
the flow of the film – it not only produces the desired visceral and emo-
tional responses, but also can contribute to our deeper understanding
of film.
We should not forget that goal-oriented linearity and the contempla-
tive stasis of vertical time are only the most visible among the differ-
ent temporal dimensions of both music and film which also include
multidirected, nondirected, nonlinear and multilayered temporalities.

Multiple temporalities in music and film

Although the linear temporality of tonal music and the macro or

vertical temporality of repetitive music exemplify the most obvious
extremes of aesthetic concepts in contemporary music, most music, as
Jonathan Kramer (1988, p. 58) points out, ‘exhibits some kind of mix
of temporalities’. Kramer also argues that the time-sense in much 20th-
century music, as well as in contemporary arts in general, reflects the
temporality of inner thought processes:

The conflict between the predominant linearity of external life and

the essential discontinuity of internal life is not peculiar to the twen-
tieth century. Thought was surely as nonlinear in 1800 as it is today.
But now art (followed at a respectable interval by popular entertain-
ment) has moved from a logic that reflects the goal-oriented linearity
of external life to an irrationality that reflects our shadowy, jumbled,
totally personal interior lives (p. 45).
The Symbolic Nature of Musical and Film Time 103

According to Stuart Hall (1992), reshaped time-space relationships in

the representational arts, to which we can add the presence of mul-
tilayered temporalities in music and film, are a direct consequence of
globalization and our age defined by de-centred personal, cultural and
post-national identities and time-space compression. Society today is
very different from that at the time of Beethoven or Da Vinci: we are
exposed to a multitude of lifestyles and environments and are even able
to change our ‘temporality’ by travelling across continents and different
time zones. A linear understanding of time might still be at the base of
our perception of reality, but that linearity is multilayered, punctured
by travel, various experiences and affected by the process of globaliza-
tion. As certain types of time-space representation in art correspond to
different senses of cultural and social identity, then it is natural, as Hall
argues, that ‘the male subject, represented in 18th-century paintings sur-
veying his property . . . has a very different sense of cultural identity from
the subject who sees “himself/herself” mirrored in the fragmented, frac-
tured “faces” which look out from the broken planes and surfaces of
one of Picasso’s cubist canvasses’ (p. 301). If we add to that the fact that
the use of technology in art provides us with the means to manipulate
time and ‘make contact with our own subjective temporalities’ (Kramer,
1988, p. 71), it is not an exaggeration to say that the treatment and
presentation of time in both music and film reflect not only the artist’s
aesthetic inclinations but also his/her sense of self and indeed, life itself.
At this point it is important to emphasize the influence that film
and its montage techniques have had on artists taking a new approach
towards temporality. It was the multiplicity of temporal dimensions in
film and their manipulations through montage that offered an alterna-
tive to conventional time sequencing in art forms and have liberated the
Western artistic mind from the confines of linear perception. As Arnold
Hauser puts it:

. . . the agreement between the technical methods of the film and

the characteristics of the new concept of time is so complete that
one has the feeling that the time categories of modern art have
arisen from the spirit of cinematic form, and one is inclined to con-
sider the film itself as the stylistically most representative . . . genre of
contemporary art.
(Quoted in Kramer, 1988, p. 70)

Although the multiple temporal dimensions of our experience

have indeed been fervently explored in film, the same appetite for
abandoning the tradition of linear temporality also affected music. Prior
104 The Musicality of Narrative Film

to Alain Resnais’ attempts to obliterate the sense of linear temporality

by interchanging past and present in Hiroshima mon amour (1958) and
through an excessive use of repetitions and variations in L’année dernière
à Marienbad (1961), Pierre Boulez wrote his Third Piano Sonata (1957).
Inspired by the aleatoric works of John Cage, this sonata contains several
parenthetical structures that may be played or omitted, promoting the
concept of open form as the ultimate denial of one-dimensional musical
temporality. A few years later Stockhausen presented his Zyklus (1959) in
a spiral-bound score with the suggestion that musical motion can start at
any point in the circle and proceeds until it returns to the starting point,
while his Momente (1961–1972) explores the idea of ‘temporal mobility’
by including ‘brief references to what may be the past in one perfor-
mance but the future in another’ (Kramer, 1988, p. 167). Kramer cites
Harrison Birtwistle’s opera The Mask of Orpheus (1970–1983) as an exam-
ple of using the potential of multiply directed time. As the composer
himself explained:

I’m concerned with . . . going over and over the same event from dif-
ferent angles, so that a multidimensional musical object is created
which contains a number of contradictions as well as a number of
(In Kramer, 1988, p. 49)

Interestingly enough, Birtwistle’s remark describes with great preci-

sion not only his compositional techniques but also what would soon
after – in the late 1980s and early 1990s – become a strong trend in
American independent and world cinema. The method of developing
parallel narrative structures around several storylines rather than a sin-
gle, linear narrative, and repeating an action from different perspectives
to create a ‘staggered, stuttered’ (Murray, 2001, p. 159) temporality was
employed in Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train (1989), Robert Altman’s Short
Cuts (1993), Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express (1994), Tarantino’s Jackie
Brown (1997), Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run (1998) and Doug Liman’s Go
(1999). Circular narratives were used in Pulp Fiction (1994) and Amores
Perros (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2000) while Christopher Nolan’s
Memento (2000) and Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (2002) challenged con-
vention by presenting the narrative backwards, using storytelling as a
tool for examining the temporal aspects of our lives, the roots of our
actions and the idea of predestination. A similar existential quest moti-
vated the creation of disruptive, nonlinear temporality and narrative in
21 Grams (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2003). The apparently random
The Symbolic Nature of Musical and Film Time 105

arrangement of the montage segments in this film, inspired by the work

of William Faulkner and Julio Cortázar, emphasizes the cyclical nature
of our experiences and at the same time brings to mind the procedures
of musical open form.
In his book The Way Hollywood Tells It, Bordwell suggests that despite
‘intricate narrative manoeuvres’, multi-layered storylines, heavy styliza-
tion and self-conscious virtuosity in contemporary cinema, ‘we are still
dealing with a version of classical filmmaking’ that can be described as
‘intensified continuity’ (2006, p. 180). In the light of what has been pre-
sented so far I would argue, though, that the widespread concern with
issues of time and its manipulations in contemporary cinema disrupts
more than the linearity of classical narrative. By affecting the passivity
of the viewing subject and questioning the stability of his/her time-
space position and identity, the cinema of multilayered temporalities
connects more strongly with similar tendencies in European modernism
than with the classical ethos and its ‘invisible’ style. And if we agree
with Kramer’s assertion that all the temporal categories of 20th-century
music, such as multiply directed time, moment time or vertical time, are
essentially ‘subjective time structures’ created by contemporary com-
posers, as opposed to ‘rational time structures’ typical of music of the
past, it also makes sense to think about discontinuity and the multilay-
eredness of temporality in contemporary film as expressive of the inner
tensions and anxieties of modern man which cannot be contained by a
goal-oriented narrative. At the same time, the very coexistence of differ-
ent layers of temporality in both arts invites us to consider their nature
and relationship to reality.

Time as a symbol

It seems that the only way to comprehend the different theories of time
is to accept the argument of J.T. Fraser (1981) that time is not bound by
the ‘law of contradiction’ according to which a proposition and its nega-
tion cannot be simultaneously true. Fraser believes that time has evolved
throughout the history of the universe and proposes a hierarchical dis-
tinction of six different temporalities that have developed in parallel
with the evolution of man and the complexification of nature. Accord-
ing to him, these temporalities are aspects of different Umwelts,8 which
in the lower levels are more concerned with the concept of an unchange-
able, eternal temporality of being, while the upper levels introduce the
concept of becoming. Presenting them from the lowest to the high-
est levels, Fraser distinguishes the following temporalities: atemporality
106 The Musicality of Narrative Film

of electromagnetic radiation; prototemporality of elementary particles,

eotemporality or the time of ‘the physicist’s t’; biotemporality or the bio-
logical time of all living organisms; nootemporality or the noetic time of
the human mind; and sociotemporality, the Umwelt of cultures and civi-
lizations. Together they form a ‘nested hierarchy of increasing richness
of content . . . Each new temporality subsumes that or those beneath it;
each permits the functioning of a qualitatively new creative freedom’.9
When people speak about time they usually mean nootemporality,
the time of the mind and society which, before the introduction of the
mechanical clock, was perceived as the interplay of constantly recurring
events: the rising of the sun, the tides, the seasons and so on. How-
ever, the cyclical experience of time with its returning rhythmic patterns
connected with the organic world was eventually suppressed by a linear
perception of time more typical of the Judeo-Christian tradition and its
view of the world with a beginning, a sequence of specific and unique
events, life and death.10 Additionally, the introduction of the mechani-
cal clock helped to create a perception of time disassociated from human
events, an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences.
As we have seen in this chapter, the time captured by art forms reflects
the complexity of time as experienced in life. Time in both music and
film is linear and at the same time cyclical, both in its ability to use rep-
etition as a formal device and in the fact that it can be performed again
and again. It also displays discontinuity and multilayeredness, mirroring
the shift of our focus from the reliability of absolute time to multidi-
mensional subjective temporality. Both film and music forms embody
some of what Shallis (1982, p. 177) calls the supernatural aspect of time,
the aspect that ‘arises from its symbolic nature, pointing in the direc-
tion of a multi-levelled reality’. Both arts follow the track of linearity
either in film narrative or in the succession of notes but at the same
time draw their content freely from other dimensions, employing the
musical or narrative equivalents of time-slips, déja vu or precognition
(letimotifs, repetitions, ellipses, flashbacks, flashforward). Shallis (1982,
p. 198) also says that ‘time seems to be a bridge linking the material and
spiritual’, acting as a pointer to the symbolic nature of reality, a ‘reality
greater than the one we have drawn around ourselves’, which is an idea
strikingly similar to those Tarkovsky articulated in his writings about
film time.
Thus, we could argue that, beyond the obvious similarities concern-
ing the employment and shaping of time in their artistic forms, music
and film share even more similarities with regard to the nature of their
temporalities and the symbolic content embedded in them. If we think
The Symbolic Nature of Musical and Film Time 107

of time as symbolic, and different temporalities as symbols of different

levels or experiences of reality, it would also make sense to envision
a time in which temporal arts unfold as yet another temporal reality.
This idea complies with Susanne Langer’s (1953, p. 109) interpretation
of experiential time in music as an ‘illusion’ or a ‘virtual time, in which
its sonorous forms move in relation to each other – always and only
to each other, for nothing else exists there’. The interpretation of the
temporality of art forms as symbolic seems even more appropriate with
regard to film, considering the complex interaction of film’s experiential
time and time represented. Film occupies a certain period of (experien-
tial) time in order to tell its story which creates a different, ‘symbolic’
temporal reality, while the sequences of events are composed in such
a way as to resemble our experience of linear temporality and reality
itself. However, even that ‘symbolic temporality’ – symbolic of reality –
is an illusion in itself, since none of the events shown on the screen took
place in the order they are presented. Additionally, both film time and
music time are constituted of time passed but are relived over and over
again in the present and, while reproduced, can constitute the present
of the spectator’s experience.
In cinema, no other body of work explores all these facets of time and
reality more deeply and compellingly than the films of David Lynch,
who is also one of the most musically oriented directors working today.
From his groundbreaking collaborations on sound design with Alan
Splet and Randy Thom and his insistence on choosing most of the
music for his films before production starts, Lynch’s focus on music
during the filmmaking process has evolved to the point where he him-
self now composes songs and soundscapes for his films. The following
section will reveal how his musical principles of filmmaking intertwine
with his philosophical and spiritual beliefs to create temporally complex
universes that comment on the elusive nature of identity and reality.

Music as a portal into the multiple temporalities

of the Lynchian universe

What distinguishes Lynch’s style from all other examples of nonlinear

storytelling is that his approach is not based on breaking the story-
line into non-chronological fragments in order to foreground particular
aspects of the story, emphasize certain points or enhance its emotional
impact. Nonlinearity in Lynch’s films stems from the fact that the sub-
conscious, hallucinatory, oneiric and desired are represented side by
side with the ‘real’ as alternative realities. In Mulholland Drive (2001)
108 The Musicality of Narrative Film

for instance, which presents its story through a narrative loop punctu-
ated with episodes seemingly unrelated to it, its nonlinear form makes
most sense if interpreted as a stream-of-consciousness type of narration
which mixes reality (or parallel realities), fantasy and dreams, as well as
different temporalities, originating from the emotionally and mentally
disturbed main character Diane/Betty, who also turns out to be dead.
In the words of Chris Rodley:

Lynch has made the very notion of ‘dream’ versus ‘reality’ an irrele-
vant opposition. As a result the borderline between these two states
has been reduced to a badly guarded checkpoint where no one seems
to be stamping passports.
(2005, p. 267)

Consequently, the same comment about the irrelevance of the

dream/reality opposition applies to our notions of diegetic and non-
diegetic in Lynch’s films.
In Lynch’s films, the inability to deal with unspoken desires or debil-
itating fear is usually represented through the split of a character into
one accepted by the self and the other representing and living what
is unacceptable, unacknowledged and unattainable by the self, as in
Mulholland Drive. The novelty of his next film, Inland Empire (2006),
is that the usual split of the main character into two personalities is
amplified, generating more storylines, some of which never overlap or
intersect.11 To make things more complicated, many of the narrative
strands as well as a number of visual and sonic motifs are addition-
ally doubled or multiplied. The enigmatic letters on the wall, rooms
with a particular furniture setup, the train whistle, the number 47, the
watch, and many other motifs appear reframed or distorted in differ-
ent episodes and timelines so that the film reverberates with narrative,
visual and sonic refrains that do not want to fit into just one story or be
explained from a single point of view.
But then again, insisting that all split personalities and guilt-ridden
fantasies in the Lynchian universe have their origins in mental ill-
ness means ignoring an important and possibly most significant aspect
of this director’s approach to narrative and art in general. As B. Kite
(2012, p. 45) argues in his illuminating reading of Mullholland Drive in
Sight and Sound, ‘Lynch is . . . a religious or spiritual artist in the same
loosely categoric sense that one might apply the term to William Blake
or Tarkovsky.’ However, the fact that this is so often unrecognized by
The Symbolic Nature of Musical and Film Time 109

critics is not only because ‘the religion in question isn’t Christianity’, as

Kite argues, but also because the dark and unsettling worlds that Lynch
explores in his films do not easily fit with Western notions of spiritual-
ity. Nevertheless, as a follower of Indian Vedanta, Lynch embraces the
idea that human existence is bound to the world of duality, ‘the theatre
of the world’ in which ‘the soul takes on the guise of individual iden-
tity’ and lives through many lifetimes unaware of its true nature until
the moment of awakening. He introduced screenings of Inland Empire
with a quote from the Upanishads:

We are like the spider. We weave our life and then move along it. We
are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives the dream. This is
true for the entire universe’.
(Quoted in Kite, 2012, p. 47)

That is why dreams and oneiric scapes are such recurring motifs in
his films and we can choose to interpret the storylines associated with
the dreamer as either manifestations of the subconscious or as symbolic
representations of the nature of our reality as explained by Vedanta.
Accordingly, the fluid identities of his characters can be understood
as the fantasies of a guilt-ridden conscience or as cinematic embodi-
ments of the philosophy which rejects the notion of a stable identity
because the latter is based on a flawed understanding of the phenomenal
world (Parciack, 2011, p. 83). Therefore, instead of trying to distinguish
between the realms of real and unreal and search for the character from
which all sub-personalities originate, we can accept that Lynch’s use of
the cinematic medium asserts his belief that the differences between
his protagonists are deceptive and therefore insignificant since in their
essence (ātman) they are identical to each other (Parciack, p. 86).
However, while the slips between different realms or levels of reality
in Lynch’s films might be apparently seamless and potentially confusing
in strictly narrative terms, sound is usually a reliable indicator of sig-
nificant changes in perception or the mental space of characters. From
Eraserhead’s (1977) chilling soundscapes of existential anxiety created
by Alan Splet in the manner of musique concrète, to the multiple story-
lines of Inland Empire, sound has always been deeply embedded in the
Lynchian universe, seeping through the porous borders of its morph-
ing subplots in order to either connect bizarre episodes and temporal
digressions or to mark shifts between them. The manifestations of the
unconscious in the narrative, like the Mystery Man in Lost Highway
110 The Musicality of Narrative Film

(1997) or the Red Room in Twin Peaks (1992) are usually defined by
unsettling electronic or digitally manipulated soundtracks, but in Inland
Empire they feature lip-synching and line dancing to 1960s hits by Etta
James, Carol King and Lynch’s own song ‘The Ghost of Love’.
The songs appear in the strand of the story in which Dern’s character
finds herself in the company of prostitutes who echo distorted accounts
of her inner thoughts as a sort of Greek chorus, finishing them with
unexpected musical intermezzos, singing and line dancing. However,
unlike the lip-sync performances in Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive
which, however strange, stay within the bounds of a particular storyline,
the songs in Inland Empire create narrative and temporal ruptures which
mirror the splits in the protagonist’s psyche, opening up the diegesis to a
seemingly infinite number of realities and temporalities, including one
which is governed by musical principles.
This musicalized realm embedded in the confluence of different nar-
rative and temporal streams appears for the first time exactly at the stage
of the film where it becomes clear that the story we’ve been watching
about a movie star making a film about adultery is just a projection
of a tortured mind, a glamorous version of a story about love and
betrayal, guilt and self-punishment. And the moment when the nar-
rative starts spiralling down the rabbit hole, so to speak, is marked by
Lynch’s own song, ‘The Ghost of Love’, which opens ‘the door of per-
ception’ for both Sue and the audience, reframing familiar images with
different temporalities, uncovering new layers of the dreamer’s psyche
and indicating a past trauma as a possible source of the protagonist’s
The segment is rich with visual and sonic symbols of dream sequences
familiar from Lynch’s other films: dark empty corridors, a dim red light
distorted by a strobing blast, dancing shadows and a reverberating elec-
tronic noise. This same oneiric environment and the young women
appear two more times soon after this segment and every time the scene
ends with a song and line dancing.12 The excessively surreal nature of
these episodes, conversations interrupted by women finger-clicking, line
dancing or lip-synching are also reminiscent of other dream sequences
from Lynch’s films, particularly Agent Cooper’s dream in Twin Peaks
(1992) in which the Man from Another Space dances to Badalamenti’s
music also accompanied by finger clicking. While all these instances uti-
lize what was aptly described by Donnelly (2005, p. 25) as the ‘irrational
force’ of music in Lynch’s films, the song ‘The Ghost of Love’ seems
endowed with additional powers of narrative transformation, opening a
portal into the past and uncovering layers of suppressed trauma.
The Symbolic Nature of Musical and Film Time 111

As is typical of Lynch’s films, the proximity of the ‘musicalized ver-

sion of reality’ is announced in the sound design, most notably by the
introduction of an electronic thumping noise in 6/8 time just before
Dern’s character enters the room with the red light. The girls she finds
there, possibly prostitutes, tell her about their experiences of being
under the spell of a man, their reminiscences delivered with lazy seduc-
tiveness and punctuated with pauses, soft exclamations and giggles,
all layered over the rhythmic ostinato of the thumping. With the first
sounds of guitar and drums a sense of otherworldliness is introduced
into the scene; the sounds of the instruments emerge from the electronic
soundscape so seamlessly that the metrically regular thumping and the
somewhat threatening noise heard throughout the scene are suddenly
perceived as the music’s prolonged introduction. The first verse of the
song, ‘Strange What Love Does’, is spoken by two girls just before the
music starts so, unlike the other dream episodes which literally break
into song and dance, in this scene it feels as if the music materializes
from the noise and spoken words that have been floating in the air,
waiting for the right moment to become a song.
‘Music opens up doors’, Lynch once said (quoted in Rodley, 2005,
p. 133) and his remark can be applied here literally because from the
moment the music starts the static mood of the scene shifts, and the
metaphoric curtain is pulled open, inviting us to step into the world
behind it. This is also the first instance in the film that links the charac-
ter played by Laura Dern and the Polish woman, urging us to establish
connections between the two despite the obvious spatial and temporal
divide between them. The scene is also emblematic of Lynch’s peculiar
approach to time as a confluence of different temporalities as one of
the girls tells Sue just before she’s about to be transported into the past:
‘In the future you’ll be dreaming in a kind of sleep, and when you open
your eyes, someone familiar will be there.’
As the song fades out, we see the image of a gramophone needle
going over an old, crackly record that also appears at the very beginning
of the film. This is one of many allusions to pre-recording, playback
and re-plays that feature in Lynch’s films, also bringing to mind the
Club Silenzio scene from Mulholland Drive in which the master of cer-
emonies announces to the audience that ‘There is no band. It is all
a recording.’ Both films draw attention to the role of the cinematic
medium through a number of visual and sonic motifs associated with
characters playing filmmakers, producers and actors involved in film-
within-film subplots, and both blur the lines between diegetic reality
and other realities created within it. Hollywood-based characters and
112 The Musicality of Narrative Film

plots have generally been viewed in light of Lynch’s critical take on

the industry, his allusions to the mediative nature of cinema and the
technology involved, but I believe there is another important aspect
to these narrative leitmotifs. The fact that in both Mulholland Drive
and Inland Empire the female protagonists are actresses involved in
film-within-a-film subplots resonates strongly with Vedanta’s notion
of human experience being an ‘enactment’ within the ‘theatre of the
world’. This is further confirmed towards the end of Inland Empire when
the third incarnation of Nikki/Sue played by Laura Dern dies on a side-
walk after being stabbed by a jealous wife, only for us to find out that
her death was also a scene in the film-within-a-film. However, instead
of shedding her costume and resuming her ‘real’ identity, Dern’s char-
acter continues to stagger through the soundstage, enters a theatre in
which she watches her previously recorded monologue on screen and
is then confronted with the manifestation of her Shadow in the form
of a Phantom. Finally she merges with the young Polish woman whose
guilt-ridden nightmares possibly gave birth to all the alternative real-
ities. Thus, the film-within-a-film-within-a-film plot and allusions to
pre-recording not only seem appropriate for a narrative branching into
multilayered temporalities inhabited by different characters and their
sub-personalities but also, more importantly, are suggestive of the idea
of any individual reality being an enactment of the dream of the soul,
or as explained by Lynch, the idea of ‘the dreamer who dreams and then
lives the dream’.
The multilayered, symbolic nature of time as represented in Lynch’s
film corresponds in many ways with the similarly complex tempo-
ral content of some contemporary music and Langer’s idea of musical
time as ‘virtual’ temporal reality. Considering their layers of different
temporalities, both musical and film time can be also viewed in rela-
tion to Fraser’s theory of time as a hierarchical nest of Umwelts. Kramer
(1988, pp. 395–6), for instance, compares musical vertical time with the
‘timelessness of atemporality’, moment time in music with prototem-
porality, multiply directed time with eotemporality, non-directed linear
time with biotemporality, and musical linear temporality with nootem-
porality. Following Langer’s train of thought, though, I would suggest
that any temporal aspect of an art form should be viewed not as an
equivalent of hierarchically lower Umwelts but as part of a separate
Umwelt that shares some features of nootemporality and sociotempo-
rality, being the product of both. The time in which music and film
forms unfold, which might be called art-temporality, should be seen as a
temporal dimension which has its own laws imposed by the art forms
The Symbolic Nature of Musical and Film Time 113

themselves. As is the case with other temporal dimensions, this one

can also be seen as a symbolic manifestation of the ‘real’ universe, or
a certain aspect of it: it is a dimension we visit of our own accord and
although our experience of it is affected by the involving power of form,
the ultimate choice of its content and the way we perceive it is our own.
Part III
Case Studies
Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man and the
Rhythm of Musical Form

By closing the circle of overlapping themes of time, rhythm and kinesis

in music and film we come to the stage where all the available findings
and conclusions about film’s musicality and the ways of achieving it
can be demonstrated integrally in individual case studies. The first two
of these studies – Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man and Darren Aronofsky’s π –
come from the tradition of American independent cinema, a strange
and elusive beast in the biggest movie jungle in the world which has
been celebrated by many filmophiles, renounced by its auteurs and pro-
nounced dead or even non-existent by press and scholars many times in
the last few decades. The term ‘independent’ in relation to American
film has been alternately used to mark either economic or aesthetic
and stylistic independence from the mainstream, or both, thus causing
sometimes contradictory or ambiguous uses of the term (Hillier, 2001;
Wood, 2004); but most importantly it has become a savvy marketing
term that studios use these days to promote films which are perceived
as being somehow ‘edgy’ or ‘controversial’.
And yet, when applied to the work of Jim Jarmusch, there is noth-
ing ambiguous about the meaning of this term, despite the filmmaker’s
open rejection of the category.1 After achieving international critical
acclaim with his first film Stranger Than Paradise (1984), which is gener-
ally recognized as the beginning of the first ‘golden’ decade of American
indie-production (Pierson, 1996), Jarmusch never accepted any work-
ing offers or financial support from American film studios, being all too
aware that becoming part of the Hollywood system is the quickest way
to compromise one’s artistic integrity. The financing for his films usu-
ally comes from Europe and/or Japan, allowing Jarmusch to make deals
which assure he retains possession of all of his films’ negatives. In fact,
the incompatibility of Jarmusch’s strong-minded artistic independence

118 The Musicality of Narrative Film

with the way the Hollywood system functions was, unfortunately, made
most obvious in the case of Dead Man (1995) which was picked up for
US distribution by Miramax. Since Jarmusch refused to do any addi-
tional cutting prior to the film’s US release, as suggested by Miramax
head Harvey Weinstein, the distribution of Dead Man suffered from
an unenthusiastic studio approach which, allegedly, even discouraged
some programme planners from showing the film (Rosenbaum, 2000,
p. 16). Two decades later, Dead Man is considered to be the first creative
peak in the career of one of the most respected independent directors, a
provocative subversion of the Western genre executed with remarkable
sensitivity for the inherent musicality of moving pictures.

From cool to political, spiritual and musical

When Jarmusch’s second film Stranger Than Paradise2 hit festivals and
theatres in 1984, it felt like an artistic manifesto of American indepen-
dent cinema. Every aspect of it clashed with the expectations typical
of mainstream productions: it was shot in black-and-white for only
$110,000; it features non-professional actors; every scene consists of
one long take during which nothing much happens and ends with
a blackout. The main reason, however, that the film is mentioned in
every history of American independent cinema is because it antici-
pated and inspired the emergence of many other small, low-budget
films which would subsequently form a healthy, exciting opposition
to the blockbusters and vacant spectacles which dominated American
cinema during the 1980s. This was a film that did not resemble any-
thing playing in American cinemas at that time, while its minimalist
style nurtured the impression that anyone could do it. The important
thing, though, was that the film’s minimalist aesthetic was cultivated
by a director who, besides having erudite tastes, also had the perceptive-
ness of a poet and the sensibility of a musician. Its visual and narrative
rhythms were marked by a strong sense of innate musicality emphasized
by an evocative score from jazz composer, saxophonist and one of the
film’s protagonists, John Lurie.
Nevertheless, it was still a minor miracle that, after winning the Cam-
era d’Or at the festival in Cannes and its successful US premiere at the
New York Film Festival, Stranger Than Paradise was pronounced Film of
the Year by the American National Society of Film Critics and had a long
cinema life in key American cities. Jarmusch’s film showed that ‘artsy’
films were able to earn money in America after all, and was cited many
times by future directors as one of the main inspirations that encouraged
Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man 119

them to make their own films, without waiting for studio budgets and
For audiences and fellow filmmakers Stranger Than Paradise was an
exciting promise of a new life which was about to start for indepen-
dent cinema. Jarmusch’s following works – Down by Law (1986), Mystery
Train (1989) and Night on Earth (1991) – confirmed his status as an
ultra-cool ‘guru’ of small-budget, non-commercial, yet critically and
even financially successful cinema. The genuinely haunting fulfilment
of that promise came in Jarmusch’s sixth film, Dead Man. Interest-
ingly though, while many critics agreed at the time that Dead Man was
Jarmusch’s best film so far, it was noted that its release also marked the
end of the decade-long ‘love-affair’ between the American press and
Jarmusch. Todd McCarthy commented in Variety that ‘the film’s plea-
sures are simply too elusive and mild to make up for a lack of narrative
propulsion’ (quoted in Peranson, 2000, p. 179), while Roger Ebert gave
the film one-and-a-half stars, concluding: ‘Jim Jarmusch is trying to
get at something here, and I don’t have a clue what it is,’ (quoted in
Rosenbaum, 2000, p. 7). And while some critics just didn’t ‘get it’, those
who did didn’t like what it meant. Dead Man was the first Jarmusch film
that had overt political overtones and some felt that the main reason
for its lack of support was the fact that its political implications could be
regarded as ‘anti-American’ (Rosenbaum, 2000, p. 17).
Dead Man tells the story of William Blake (Johnny Depp), an accoun-
tant from Cleveland, who sometime in the late 19th century comes to
the West to take a job in a steel mill, but ends up being shot and hunted
as a criminal with a price on his head. Hiding in the woods Blake meets
a Native American called Nobody, who leads Blake to the coast of the
Pacific Ocean from where he is supposed to go back to the ‘land of the
The film touches on many themes, some of them familiar from
Jarmusch’s previous films, such as the position of the outsider – in this
case, an outlaw – and some new, such as American history, violence,
poetry and William Blake. It also reverses the notion of the Western
as a heroic, romantic genre, focusing instead on the theme of death
and using well-researched material on the cruel, capitalist, genocidal
America of the 1870s. Even though the genocide committed by white
settlers against Native Americans is never explicitly discussed in the film,
the notion of it smoulders continuously in the background. Also, the
film’s presentation of Native Americans that confronts the Hollywood
stereotypes and the authentic employment of Blackfoot, Cree and
Makah languages prompted Jonathan Rosenbaum to pronounce Dead
120 The Musicality of Narrative Film

Man as ‘the first Western made by a white filmmaker that assumes as

well as addresses Native American spectators’, while at the same time
offering ‘one of the ugliest portrayals of white American capitalism to be
found in American movies’. Rosenbaum insists that, although the first
distinction might seem incidental or of modest importance, it makes a
profound and far-reaching difference ‘that affects practically everything
else one might say about the film, morally and politically as well as
historically’ (2000, p. 18).
But then again, this political aspect of Dead Man is still only one
undercurrent of the film that touches on many others beneath the
surface of its very simple story. According to Jarmusch himself, the
main theme connecting all the subthemes is epitomized in the film’s
metaphor of life as a journey. And the exploration of this metaphor led
Jarmusch for the first time to delve overtly into the theme of spirituality.
In fact, an argument could be developed that the reduced style typical of
Jarmusch’s films, and the philosophy behind the aesthetic choices that
guide his exploration of spirituality in this film, qualify Dead Man as a
representative of the transcendental style as described by Paul Schrader
(1972) in his study of the work of Jarmusch’s heroes – Yasujiro Ozu,
Robert Bresson and Carl Dreyer. Dead Man’s unusual take on the Western
also inspired several essays exploring its contextual place within the
genre (Rickman, 1998; Szaloky, 2001) and an insightful and inspiring
monograph by Jonathan Rosenbaum (2000). My analysis, however, will
focus on exploring the film’s inner musicality. After all, it was Jarmusch
himself who said:

Movies are very musical . . . To me, music is the most pure form of
art in that it communicates something immediately and it doesn’t
necessarily have to be restricted by your understanding of language.
And film is a lot like music in that a film has a rhythm like a piece
of music. You start a film and that rhythm takes you through the
story that’s been told or the length of time the film lasts. The same
way with a piece of music. They’re closely related with rhythm: the
cutting of the film, the way a camera moves, and the way a story is
put together.
(Quoted in Peranson, 2002, p. 183)

Before he became a filmmaker, Jarmusch studied literature at

Columbia, thinking he would be a poet and writer. Having a great
interest in music too, he was also a member of a New Wave band
called Del-Byzanteens at the end of the 1970s. In all his interviews
Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man 121

Jarmusch relentlessly proclaims his admiration for both poetry and

music, although he admits:

Music to me had been the most beautiful form of expression and still
is. I still get the most inspiration from music. Music has always been,
I don’t know, really in my soul.
(Quoted in Campion, 2001, p. 207)

Jarmusch regularly casts musicians as fictional characters (John Lurie,

Tom Waits, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Iggy Pop) or themselves (Jack and
Meg White, RZA and GZA) and they often contribute to his soundtracks.
Moreover, Jarmusch revealed that the original inspiration for writing
Down by Law and Mystery Train came directly from music. The former
was born from his interest in the music of New Orleans, which initiated
the idea to make the film in Louisiana. The location for the latter, which
eventually influenced certain strands of the plot, was chosen because of
the musical history of Memphis (Sante, 2001, p. 93).
One could argue that all these connections with and inspiration from
music are essentially external or incidental to the inner structure gov-
erning any film. However, in the case of Ghost Dog: The Way of the
Samurai (1999) and in particular Dead Man, these connections spread
much deeper. In Ghost Dog the musical styles of be-bop and hip hop
inspired Jarmusch for the first time to open the structure of his film to
postmodern intertextuality which refers to other films, such as Jean-
Pierre Melville’s The Samurai (1967) and Kurosawa’s Rashomon, while
RZA’s approach to composing led Jarmusch to adapt his style of music
employment to the hip hop style of RZA’s music.3 In Dead Man the music
of Neil Young not only influences aspects of the film’s macro- and micro-
structure and the rhythm of the film’s inner breathing, but also strongly
defines the sense of the film’s temporality and what we eventually come
to understand as its meaning.
This case study will show how sensitivity to the rhythm of the film’s
inner breathing inevitably evokes the logic of musical structuring, which
in the interactive context of audio-visual synthesis also produces an
affective impact similar to that of music.

Structural rhythm

Apart from the five-part omnibus Night on Earth, the general formal
outlines of Jarmusch’s films preceding Dead Man show the director’s ten-
dency to organize narrative structures in three-part forms which include
122 The Musicality of Narrative Film

more or less clear hints of a reprise or some kind of recapitulation.

Stranger Than Paradise is divided into three ‘chapters’ of which the last
one places the characters in the same location as where the film started
(somewhere near an airport), although in totally reversed roles and
states of mind. The three-part form of Down by Law is underlined by
the time-space-sound unity of its parts,4 even though the story evolves
away from the structure-with-reprise. Even the omnibus Mystery Train,
which consists of three stories with overlapping temporal and narrative
fragments, is framed with similar shots of a train coming into/leaving
Memphis, giving it a sense of roundedness. The three-part form of
Dead Man emphasizes elements of reprise both in the narrative and
audio-visual design of its sequences.
At the beginning we see William Blake travelling on a train in a
sequence that concludes with the main musical theme composed by
Neil Young accompanying the opening credits (Figure 7.1). This arrival
is mirrored at the end of the movie by the image of Blake ‘departing’
in a canoe to the ‘land of the spirits’, while the main theme is reprised
during the closing credits. The symmetry between the film’s opening
and closing is also apparent in the ‘dialogue’ between the scene follow-
ing the opening credits and the one starting the final chapter of the
film. In the former we see Blake arriving in the town of Machine where,
accompanied by fragments of the main theme, he encounters people
and situations that evoke a strong sense of foreboding. In the latter, the
half-dead and almost unconscious Blake arrives at the Pacific coast, his
walk through the village of Makah Indians punctuated by distorted frag-
ments of the main musical theme that reflect his deteriorating state. The
recognizable visual motifs shared by both scenes – a mother with her
baby, animal skulls, men loading a coach – emphasize the connection
between them, but while the images in Machine suggest the presence
of death and decay, the atmosphere in the Indian village seems more
natural and the people look young and healthy.

Figure 7.1 My own transcription of the musical theme from Dead Man composed
by Neil Young, recorded by Vapor records, 1996
Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man 123

On one level, according to Jarmusch, the symmetry of these two

scenes emphasizes the fact that the cultures of the industrialized settlers
and natives coexisted briefly, until one was wiped out by the other. The
scenes’ endings also underline this point, the first bringing Blake to the
gate of a noisy, steaming factory, while Blake’s walk through the Makah
village ends with him in front of a gigantic totem marking the Indians’
sacred site. On another level, the reflection of the beginning of the film
in its ending corresponds to the film’s general idea of its protagonist
‘passing through the mirror of water’ that will send Blake back to the
spirit level of the world (Rosenbaum, 2001, pp. 163–4). These two scenes
are also the longest ones without dialogue in the film that are not inter-
rupted by blackouts. In the context of the film’s episodic structure, the
uninterrupted flow of these scenes gives them a particular weight and
also anchors Dead Man’s composition with lengthy symmetrical frames.
This structure closely resembles musical ternary form where even the
introduction and coda mirror each other with scenes of arriving (on a
train) and departing (in a canoe).
The narrative of Dead Man is episodic, as in Jarmusch’s other films,
concentrated on details within the closed realm of each scene rather
than organized cumulatively. The film is punctuated by references to
death – the film’s principal refrain – but also by blackouts between
every scene and reappearing motifs of a distinctive sonic, visual or even
humorous character. The views of horse-riding hunters against the deso-
late landscape, quotations from the work of poet William Blake, repeated
jokes about tobacco and recurring fragments of the main musical theme
are woven into the film’s texture as subtle structural accents. A similar
effect is obtained by depicting one of the bounty hunters chasing Blake
as a non-stop talker, so that all hunt scenes are marked by the presence
of his endless southern-accented jabber.
The symmetrical structure of the film and the recurrence of distinctive
narrative and musical motifs led Kent Jones to compare the structure
of Dead Man to ‘an epic film poem with rhyming figures and refrains’
(1996, p. 46), to which Jonathan Rosenbaum responded:

Jones’ evocations of poetry gradually merge with evocations of

music . . . and when we get to the black-outs . . . we could be speak-
ing about either poetry or music: as in Stranger Than Paradise, where
the patches of black leader suggest both the blank spaces on a
page between stanzas and the pauses or rests between musical state-
ments, we have entered a realm where two forms become somewhat
(2000, pp. 65–6)
124 The Musicality of Narrative Film

In the context of the structure that closely resembles musical ABA’

form, the use of blackouts is most important for establishing the feeling
of innate rhythm. Jarmusch insists that particular rhythms in his movies
grow out of the stories themselves with the basic idea that ‘scenes would
resolve in and of themselves without being determined by the next
coming image’ (quoted in Rosenbaum, 2001, p. 158). His films’ internal
rhythms seem to be affected by their look as well, with the black-and-
white films (Stranger Than Paradise; Down by Law; Dead Man) featuring
punctuating blackouts much more consistently than his films shot in
colour (Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai; Broken Flowers, 2005; The
Limits of Control) in which formal rhythm is emphasized by refrain-like
readings from the samurai warrior code and musical interludes, respec-
tively. In Dead Man the principle of using blackouts is applied most
consistently and most musically, concluding almost every scene, or even
being introduced in the middle of a scene, suggesting the passing of
time, dictating the rhythm of the absorption of audio-visual content
and sometimes creating the effect of syncopation.

Rhythm of silence and sound

Jarmusch consciously uses blackouts ‘rhythmically, to give the film a

measured breath’, but also to ‘give the audience a moment to think,
to digest the scene they have just been watching’ (quoted in Bagh and
Kaurismäki, 2001, p. 76). This approach partly stems from Jarmusch’s
admiration for classical Japanese films – especially those by Ozu,
Mizoguchi and Kurosawa – as he compares his use of blackouts with
the Zen-Buddhist concept of ma, which ‘expresses the spaces between
all the other things’. This Japanese word has different meanings in dif-
ferent contexts and can be translated as ‘empty’, ‘gap’, ‘space’ or as
‘the space between two structural parts’, but ultimately it symbolizes
the unity of matter and its opposite. Applied to music the concept of
ma acknowledges that sound is complemented by silence and the same
idea is employed in all Japanese art forms including architecture, haiku
poetry, ink drawing and even gardening (Mera, 2001, p. 2).
Although Westerners generally do not have anything close to the con-
cept of ma in arts, the extensive presence of blackouts in film can also be
compared to the conceptualized employment of silence in music. The
power of silence in the context of orchestral music was explored, for
instance, by Iannis Xenakis in Akrata (1966), or Witold Lutoslawski in
his Second Symphony (1967). Of course, the most extreme and famous
example is John Cage’s piece 4’33” (1952), which does not involve any
Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man 125

playing, just the gestures of opening and closing of a piano lid. Although
Cage’s avant-garde gesture could have been understood as simply sub-
versive, Cage’s primary goal was to expand the notion of what could
be understood as music. Being inspired by Eastern philosophy himself,
Cage did not try to ‘negate’ sound by affirming silence, but quite the
opposite, he tried to reveal its sonic richness and musical potential.
By the end of the last century, silence had been fully embraced as part of
the musical vocabulary and was being employed as a powerful expres-
sive and poetic device by the likes of Arvo Pärt, Peter Ruzicka and many
Jarmusch’s rhythmic use of blackouts ‘to give the film a measured
breath’ in many ways fulfils the formal function of silences in music.
As silences frame rhythmic figures, melodies and whole pieces, so black-
outs in Dead Man (and Stranger Than Paradise) frame the scenes and
sequences. The rhythmical value of blackouts is in that sense analogous
to a rest in music, which Jarmusch acknowledges by deciding on the
length of each individual blackout.5 In Dead Man the durations of black-
outs range from one to five seconds and there is no apparent consistency
in the approach to their distribution. Although shorter blackouts are
often used at the end of shorter scenes or for punctuating individual
sequences such as the opening scene on the train, the length of the
scene preceding the blackout is not the main factor in determining its
length. The durations of blackouts also respond to the affective content
of the scenes – which is particularly obvious at the end of the film – as
well as to the rhythm of the film’s general flow. More important than
their length is the regularity of their recurrence which gives the film a
pulse unconsciously accepted by the viewer as a rhythm of perception:
gradually, the appearances of the blackouts and their frequency become
as natural as blinking, while within the film’s internal structure, they
become the frequency of its inner breathing.
When Jarmusch says that he also uses blackouts to ‘give the audience
a moment to think, to digest the scene they have just been watching’,
this explanation is strikingly similar to the one Lutoslawski gave for
the employment of general pauses in the first movement of his Sec-
ond Symphony. Inspired by Husserl’s (1964) idea of retention of music
in the mind as a way of ‘extending the present’, and also as a result of
Lutoslawski’s own theoretical work, this movement makes a point of lis-
tening ‘backwards’, where general pauses are given to the listener as an
opportunity to absorb what has just been heard (Popović, 1998, p. 84).
The appearances of blackouts also suggest the passing of time between
the shots/scenes, which is particularly notable in the opening sequence
126 The Musicality of Narrative Film

of Dead Man, one of the most musically structured segments of the film
that employs all the lines of its audio-visual score: structuring, edit-
ing, acting, the use of sound and music, the use of silence and words,
lighting, the contrast of black and white, movement and affective


The opening sequence which precedes the opening credits shows

William Blake travelling on the train. Its temporal frame is punctu-
ated by blackouts suggesting the passing of time during his journey.
Every new section after a blackout reveals Blake in new surroundings
and, as his train proceeds west, the passengers as well as the land-
scape around them gradually become wilder. On a more subtle level,
the continual reappearance of blackouts creates the rhythmic scaffold
of the sequence, with everything else happening between the blackouts
forming the rhythm of its kinetic drive.
The sequence opens with a shot of the train wheels in motion, which
reappears six times, always following a blackout. Each successive take
of the moving wheels is accompanied by fragments of music played by
electric guitar using delay and distortion effects. The musical material
consists of only a few notes and it does not change noticeably during
the sequence, but as gradually as the passengers and landscape around
Blake change from tame to wild, each successive use of the music sounds
more menacing. The darkening of the tone is further aided by the image
of the train’s fireman putting coal in the boiler just before the train dis-
appears into a tunnel, as if he is feeding the mouth of Hell. Indeed,
the same character appears later as a messenger from Hell delivering
his last warning to Blake, his words ‘you are as likely to find your own
grave here’ accentuated with gunshots. As the whole film is, according
to Jarmusch, based on the simple metaphor of life as a journey, he obvi-
ously wanted to make it clear from the very beginning that the journey
of his protagonist is destined and unstoppable.
At the beginning, the music only accompanies shots outside the train,
where Blake is looking through the window. Two-note motifs accentuate
disturbing images that flicker past Blake, the deserted and burnt teepees,
skeletons of animals and half-decayed covered wagons, all too vivid rem-
nants of violence. Belonging only to the world outside the train, the
music is thus from the beginning established as part of Blake’s point
of view, suggesting that he perceives his surroundings as unknown and
Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man 127

While these musical fragments register as minor audio-visual accents,

the recurrences of blackouts and shots of the train wheels in motion
accompanied by music carry the heaviest structural weight in the open-
ing sequence, the latter also acting as a source of kinetic drive on both
visual and sonic levels. The micro-rhythm of the sequence is addition-
ally underlined by Robby Müller’s photography which, with its striking
composition and contrasts of black and white, creates a visual rhythmic
layer on its own throughout the film. The repeated close-ups of Johnny
Depp’s silent but expressive face juxtaposed with shots of inside and
outside the train and the rhythmic swinging of the light-bulb combine
the kinetic power of editing with the diegetic movement. All these ele-
ments function like instruments of a well-rehearsed orchestra, bringing
a palpable musicality to the audio-visual flow.
Although editing is clearly one of the most important means of
establishing the musicality of this sequence, this does not under-
mine the ethos of Dead Man as generally representative of the aesthetic
of the shot. It rather confirms the idea discussed in previous chapters
that the most successful examples of ‘composing on screen’ are cre-
ated through a combination of internal and external rhythms embodied
in time passing through the shot, diegetic movement, movements
of camera and editing, and rhythms of sound and music. Although
Jarmusch’s undeniable proclivity for long, static shots clearly diverges
from the dominant taste for the MTV style of editing, he has mentioned
more than once how editing for him is not about ‘bludgeoning the
material into your expectations or predesigned thinking’ but is rather
about ‘listening to the material and having it tell you what it wants’
(Baumgarten 2001, p. 170; Campion 2001, p. 198; Macaulay 2001,
p. 150). While referring to the macro-rhythmic relationships between
scenes and sequences and the process by which a film acquires its final
shape, this remark also explains the music-like fluency within the con-
fines of single sections. And if there was ever a film sequence that brings
to mind E.T. Cone’s definition of a rhythmic form as one made of an
extended upbeat followed by its downbeat, then it is the opening of this
film as a rhythmic form on a small scale.
After six units divided by blackouts, the seventh is established as the
centre of gravity of the sequence: it is longer than the previous frag-
ments; it delivers the first dialogue and gives strong confirmation of
the atmosphere of apprehension that was previously only suggested,
both in picture and sound; it acts as the sequence’s structural downbeat.
The opening credits that follow, introducing the main theme played
by acoustic and electric guitars, are not perceived as separate from the
128 The Musicality of Narrative Film

sequence itself, but rather as its long-anticipated closure, its musical

coda. The flow of credits follows the rhythm of the music, the appear-
ance of each name matching the musical beats, while the title itself is
animated, its letters made of floating bones, the disappearance of which
is also accentuated by the music.
Apart from establishing editing as one of the means for acquiring the
music-like fluency of its scenes, the structure of this sequence also intro-
duces an approach typical of Jarmusch which concerns the treatment
of the film’s micro-structure as an audio-visual whole. Jarmusch’s orga-
nization of a scene is reminiscent of the structure of a musical phrase
of which the fadeout feels like a ‘cadence’. Often music itself plays the
role of the cadence, sinking into the ending of the scene and some-
times also stretching over the ensuing blackout. In the case of Dead Man,
the credit for the musical flow and the feel of the cadential endings of
the phrases/scenes belongs as much to Neil Young as to the director
himself, since Jarmusch kept most of the music that Young improvised
while watching the rough cut of the film. However, Jarmusch introduced
this principle as early as in Stranger Than Paradise. In Dead Man he uses
this ‘phrasing’ throughout the movie with regular frequency, infusing
music as a cadential ending of phrases/scenes into the core of the film’s
micro-formal structure. The opening sequence represents an expanded
example of this approach in which the whole section from the opening
shot to the end of the credits feels like an extended musical phrase with
a long rhythmic upbeat, the longest scene with dialogue as its structural
downbeat and the main theme played by acoustic and electric guitars as
the musical closure.
The next section explores the ‘bigger picture’ of Dead Man’s struc-
ture and the influence of music in creating a temporal loop for Blake’s
journey of self-discovery.

Rhythm of time, space and motion

Jarmusch has said that the essence of his movies is the stuff most
moviemakers leave out – the moments between dialogue and between
actions (Bagh and Kaurismäki, 2001, p. 75; Keogh, 2001, p. 127). He
is interested in silences or things his characters are not able to say or
articulate because he believes that scenes without dialogue reveal more
accurately what is happening between characters. Jarmusch also likes
transient shots of landscapes, of sky and birds flying or of walks through
a town, which are usually accompanied by music. Most directors use
these kinds of shots only as transitions between scenes; Jarmusch
Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man 129

employs them consciously as infusions of fresh air for the film to inhale,
as opportunities to listen to a musical phrase in its wholeness, or as a way
to create a rhythmic or affective balance with scenes of more condensed
content. As if fulfilling Tarkovsky’s ideal of film rhythm, he allows us to
feel time passing through the shots. That is why it feels like a paradox
when we become aware of the eerie stillness that gradually overwhelms
our perception of time and space in Dead Man.
When Blake flees the town, after killing a man in self-defence and
having been shot himself, it marks the beginning of his journey in
the wilderness, which stretches over seven days. Starting as an escape,
Blake’s travelling becomes a process of self-discovery during which he
finds out that he is capable of surviving in the wild, as well as of becom-
ing a cold-blooded killer, even though he always shoots in self-defence.
Jarmusch’s decision to give his character the name of the famous English
poet and painter is an amusing detail, since the first person who recog-
nizes this connection is a Native American. On the other hand, this
detail, apart from justifying the presence of Blake’s poetry in the film, is
supposed to confirm the Indian’s belief that Blake is a dead man indeed,
on his way to the ‘land of the spirits’.
The journey of Depp’s Blake also has the characteristics of a myth-
ical journey marked by the stages of separation, initiation and return
(Campbell, 1985, p. 162). At the beginning, Blake is forced to leave
the town of Machine as an outlaw (separation). As in all journeys of
this kind he finds the help of a guide – in this case a Native American
called Nobody (Gary Farmer) – who, being close to nature and spiritual-
ity, guides Blake towards a ‘quest for vision’ (initiation through fasting)
and eventually to his return to the ‘spirit world’.
When at the beginning of the film the train’s fireman comes to deliver
his warning to Blake, his first words – which confuse Blake – in many
ways also refer to the film’s ending:

Doesn’t this remind you of when you’re in the boat and then later
that night you’re lying, looking up at the ceiling, and the water in
your head was not dissimilar from the landscape, and you think to
yourself, ‘Why is it that the landscape is moving, but the boat is still?’

Rosenbaum comments (2000, p. 83) that this monologue implies

Blake’s ‘inability to distinguish between inner consciousness and exter-
nal reality’, which supports the hypothesis about the inward journey,
in which all the characters, like in dreams, are manifestations of an
idea or a certain part of one’s self. On the other hand, the monologue
130 The Musicality of Narrative Film

emphasizes the circular, cyclical nature of Blake’s journey, which is typ-

ical for myths in general. According to Joseph Campbell (1985, p. 162),
mythological journeys are actually symbolical tales of inward journeys
travelled by shamans, mystics and mythological heroes. In the light of
this interpretation, it seems appropriate that the blackouts punctuating
Blake’s journey have been compared by some writers to moments sepa-
rating episodes of intermittent dreams (Szaloky), or to slips in and out
of consciousness (Levy). Comparing the blackouts to silences in music,
though, brings to mind another remark of Brelet:

The silences of punctuation allow musical form not only to define

itself objectively, but also to penetrate our inwardness. In breathing,
the musical form recovers its vital inward force – which is none other
than our own.
(1958, p. 114)

The journey of William Blake might also refer to the condition of a

Western man who is dead and does not even know it, stumbling through
the purgatory of life, trying to find the way out. The ‘guide’ shows him
the way to his spirituality, how to connect with nature while he is learn-
ing how to assume the role he was destined for. Those who are chasing
Blake could be seen as representatives of a ‘civilized’ Western world
which is appropriating and destroying Nobody’s world. The industri-
alized town of Machine, bounty hunters, diseases spread on purpose by
missionaries, and temptations (the girl with flowers who gets Blake shot)
represent the real threats to nature and the spirit but can also be symbols
of the Jungian ‘shadow’ – the dark part of Blake’s subconscious world.
As an inward journey of mythical nature Blake’s occupies a corner of
timeless, non-existent and ever-present space. Described in the words of
William Blake, the poet: ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed every
thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.’ Every day and night of
Blake’s journey introduces some new and odd incident or character and
they all occur in the same desolate landscape in the middle of nowhere.
After a while, the constant motion of the characters, the cycle of day
and night and the vastness of the landscape leave the viewer with the
feeling that time is standing still and the landscape is closing around
its characters. The interesting thing, though, is that the defining com-
ponent in the creation of the ghostly feeling that Blake is stuck in a
time-loop is music – music as part of the landscape, soundscape and the
most palpable embodiment of the film’s circular temporality.
The most striking thing about the theme that accompanies Blake from
the very beginning is that it doesn’t undergo any kind of development,
Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man 131

just variation or distortion at certain points. The theme is introduced

during the opening credits and can only be heard again in its full version
for acoustic and electric guitars at the very end of the movie. How-
ever, smaller or bigger fragments of the theme are present in almost
every scene featuring Blake. Sometimes they are used as cadences, some-
times as sonic accents that underline narrative points concerning Blake’s
confrontation with the inevitability of destined events in his journey,
or the transformation he is undergoing as a person. Distortion of the
theme, as in one of the final scenes when Blake is stumbling through
the Indian village, happens only as a reflection of Blake’s perception,
never as a comment. With persistent and frequent use throughout the
movie the musical theme gradually emerges as the only constant within
the film’s audio-visual and narrative structure based on perpetual move-
ment. It becomes a symbol of everything inevitable, a symbol of the
final goal Blake has to attain. The unchanging character and affective
immutability of the theme in the context of a desolate landscape with
no marks, signs or any kind of orientation, creates a specific soundscape
from which arises a feeling of staleness. It creates the impression that all
the characters are moving in circles while time is standing still, waiting
for them to find the right way out.
The effect of suspended time is enhanced by the symmetry of the
film’s ternary form and the cyclical nature of its temporality. At the same
time, the way music is woven into the texture of the film’s audio-visual
design and narrative influences the rhythm of the film’s emotional con-
tent, releasing in the process the most subtle aspect of the film’s own

Affective rhythm

Jarmusch’s films do not feature big stories and big characters. His
episodic narrative style evolved out of his natural preference for short
prose and poetry and is always imbued with a strong sense of atmo-
sphere. He deliberately avoids classical dramatic structure with conflict
and resolution; his minimalist, ‘reduced’ approach, as he prefers to call
it, focuses instead on marginal, eccentric or displaced characters and
‘the seemingly inconsequential little things they do’ (quoted in Sante
2001, p. 98). The transcendental style of Ozu and Bresson influenced
his cinematic language and inspired him to develop his own vocabulary
of reduced gestures, inexpressive acting and static camera work. Unlike
Ozu, though, Jarmusch is very careful with his choice and employment
of music which is, in concurrence with his narrative and visual styles,
deliberately kept from affectively engaging with the onscreen content.
132 The Musicality of Narrative Film

Lurie’s score in Stranger Than Paradise, for instance, is crucial in creating

the atmosphere and defining the mood, but it is manifestly extrapo-
lated from the film’s narrative context. Since that first film, Jarmusch
has persistently avoided using music’s suggestive powers and exploiting
its affective potential to comment on the action or tell the audience
what to feel. In Down by Law music is employed as one of the elements
that create the time-space-sound unity of each part of its ternary form
and in Broken Flowers the Ethiopian jazz by Mulatu Astatke is employed
as a refrain to the film’s essentially strophic structure. Dead Man is the
first Jarmusch film in which music becomes deeply involved in the film’s
narrative. Jarmusch’s caution and even hesitation over applying music
in his early movies has been replaced here with a more relaxed and
daring approach that has brought increased intensity to his work.
An important piece of the puzzle in this context is the captivat-
ing impact of cinematography which is in Jarmusch’s black-and-white
films – with the exception of Stranger Than Paradise, shot by Tom
DiCillo – created by Dutch Director of Photography (DoP) Robby Müller.
As Jarmusch himself has explained, the striking power of Müller’s
black-and-white compositions can be traced to his general ‘inside-out’
approach to lighting scenes. Contrary to the tendency of Hollywood
cinematographers to ‘pre-flash things and soften and mute everything’,
Müller is primarily concerned with the emotional content of a scene.
Comparing Müller’s work to that of Dutch interior painters like Vermeer
or de Hoeck, Jarmusch explains that its power comes from the fact that
Müller creates the look of a film only after finding its essence and its
atmosphere (Andrew, 2001, p. 192). In Dead Man Müller’s photography
adds to the affective content of the film by emphasizing the bleakness of
the landscape and suggesting its almost artificial quality. It provides the
perfect foundation for establishing the potent interactive relationship
between visual content and music.
As Jarmusch has explained on several occasions, the score for Dead
Man was created by Neil Young improvising while watching the unin-
terrupted rough-cut of the film several times in a row – an approach
atypical of American scoring practice but famously done by Miles Davis
for Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (1957). Unlike Davies and his
ensemble though, who responded to Malle’s story about doomed lovers
with several very atmospheric themes, Young based his improvisation
around one basic piece of material, the theme of Blake’s journey, which
brought an unexpectedly strong affective layer to the film. Young says
that he treated the movie as his ‘rhythm section to which he added
a melody’ (quoted in Rosenbaum 2000, p. 44), which helps to explain
Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man 133

exactly how the music works in this film: his comment emphasizes the
fact that the audio-visual texture is treated as a complex but cohesive
organism and encourages us to perceive the film as if it is music. Young’s
remark also acknowledges the well-devised rhythmical structure of the
film while reminding us that the strongest affective qualities in music
usually come from melody although, of course, the context in which
a melody is played is as relevant to the scene’s affective impact as the
melody itself.
The discussion about the structural employment of rhythm in
Chapter 4 suggested that repetition in film does not have the same
impact as repetition in music. We tend to go back to some pieces
of music many times because the encounter with well-known con-
tent takes nothing away from its original affective impact and possibly
adds to it, while the enjoyment in repeated viewings of films is more
limited. As some critics have remarked (Rosenbaum, 2000), Dead Man
seems to be one of those rare films which is actually more enjoyable
after each subsequent viewing, partly because some of its subthemes
and textual layers reveal themselves only gradually. Another reason is
that the rhythms of its repetitions have greater effect when recognized
consciously. Finally, it is because of its repetitions that Young’s music,
acting like a melody to Dead Man’s audio-visual score, elicits unexpected
affective potential from the film, which becomes most obvious in the
film’s ‘reprise’.
This final phase of Blake’s journey begins upon his arrival in Makah
territory. As he stumbles through the Indian village encountering
mirror-images of his walk through the town of Machine, we hear the
fragments of the main theme distorted by heavy use of reverb and
delay which reflect Blake’s fractured, expiring consciousness. The set-
up suddenly gains the significance of a ritual as Blake is followed by
the Makah men in their decorated clothes and by Nobody’s words ‘walk
proudly, William Blake’ (Figure 7.2). The strongest emotional impact,
however, comes from the music; it is the result of the cumulative effect
of its careful structural employment and its interactive relationship with
the visual style and narrative context of the film rather than a clichéd
exploitation of music’s affective qualities through sentimental tunes
devised to manipulate our emotional response to what is on the screen.
Although inseparable from the idea of Blake’s journey, the musical
theme in Dead Man is never used as a typical leitmotif but rather as
part of the film’s landscape and also as the embodiment of the film’s
temporal loop. It permeates the audio-visual texture of Dead Man and
introduces a sense of continuity that outgrows the episodic nature of the
134 The Musicality of Narrative Film

Figure 7.2 William Blake in the village of Makah Indians (Dead Man, Jim
Jarmusch, 1995)

film’s central part. Even though the film’s micro-structure based on self-
contained audio-visual units resembles more the horizontal structure
of minimalist or Asian music rather than the hierarchical structure of
Western musical forms oriented towards emotional and dramatic peaks,
the continuity provided by the music endows the film with cumulative
The fact that the theme always manifests itself in fragments rather
than in its entirety is another important factor which enables that
potential by avoiding premature saturation with affective content.
In this way the music really does act as a melody to the film’s ‘rhythmic
section’, its fragmentary use preparing the reprise as its affective down-
beat. In the last sequence the distorted guitar sounds are not only
evocative of Blake’s altering consciousness and blurred perception but
also create an effective soundscape for his walk towards the end. But
it is the moment when these fragments reconstruct themselves into
the recognizable shape of the theme that the affective content of the
scene becomes amplified, establishing this scene as the film’s emotional
The affective result of this scene is the final and most important
confirmation of the initial proposition that the structure of Dead Man
Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man 135

functions as a musical ternary form, because only in music does the

reprise have that kind of impact. After all, the particular affective pay-off
that comes with the repetition of a principal musical theme at the end
of a piece is the main reason why the simple ternary form with reprise
has been so resilient for centuries, having survived multiple revolutions
of different musical styles and practices. At the same time, one should
not overlook the significance of the process of audio-visual merging that
happens in this scene, because the source of the music’s affective power
at the end also stems from the surrounding narrative context and the
fact that the film transfers its contextual power to the music. At the
moment when Blake is taking his last steps towards the boat which
will take him across the ‘bridge of water’, the fragments of music that
have been endlessly circling around the film’s time-loop emphasize the
mythic aspect of this journey suggesting that William Blake might be
indeed any Western man stumbling through the hell of life, looking for
a spiritual guide who will show him the way out.
In the final shots following the reprise, the tone is lightened by the
last joke about tobacco and is then somewhat disturbed by the discon-
certingly laconic manner in which the last shoot-out is represented,
showing Nobody and the only surviving bounty hunter kill each other,
while Blake watches helplessly from a distance. The solemn mood is re-
established by shots of the ocean, the sky and the image of Blake closing
his eyes, replaced by the shot of the darkening horizon and accompa-
nied by an improvisational musical coda containing fragments of the
main theme. A full reprise of the theme starts with the beginning of the
closing credits, the effect of its full repetition being the same as in any
musical work when, after a prolonged delay, the principal theme finally
kicks in. And in the same way the opening credits are experienced as
a cadence to the introductory sequence, the musical content gives the
closing credits the effect of an extended coda which provides a conclud-
ing emotional downbeat. The completion embodied in the full reprise
of the main musical theme also leaves space for the hope that this time
Blake got it right and will not have to come back again.
In his book The Raw and the Cooked Claude Lévi-Strauss argues that
both music and myth communicate messages larger than themselves
and both are instruments for the obliteration of time.7 Myth is able
to overcome the contradiction between historical, enacted time and
a permanent constant, while music turns irreversible time devoted to
listening into a ‘synchronic totality, enclosed within itself. Because of
the internal organization of the musical work, the act of listening to it
immobilizes passing time’, says Lévi-Strauss (1970, p. 16). Following that
136 The Musicality of Narrative Film

train of thought I would suggest that the recreation of mythical patterns

of separation, initiation and return in Blake’s journey and its cycli-
cal nature are enough to encourage the comparison of Dead Man with
music. At the same time, as argued by Gregg Rickman in his essay about
Dead Man, the Western as a genre is inherently based on myths. In some
Westerns those myths are established by creating ‘a fantasy world that
America has used to process its own history through – often stamping its
own ideology all over it’ (Jarmusch quoted in Rickman, 1998, p. 388).
Other Westerns, like Dead Man itself, recreate myth-evoking spiritual
journeys, although in a classical Western a flawed hero usually deserves
his redemption through some kind of positive action. Jarmusch’s hero
is, however, extremely passive and manages to redeem neither himself
nor the nation of settlers he represents. His only achievement is the
acceptance of the role assigned to him, which is essentially the point
of every spiritual journey, even though it is debatable whether or not
Blake’s acceptance is followed by understanding.8 What is certain in this
case though, and does not necessarily apply to any other Western with
mythical overtones, is that the patterns of Blake’s journey recreate in
their entirety the patterns of a musical ternary form with reprise, on the
levels of both the micro- and the macro-structure.
Although in the case of Dead Man the structural patterning and the
cyclical nature of the narrative are both related to patterns of myth, a
micro-formal organization evocative of music is also a feature typical
of other Jarmusch movies, originating in his general treatment of film’s
texture as an audio-visual whole. Even though it might seem superflu-
ous to stress the significance of this approach after almost a century
of ‘talkies’, the common practices of compartmentalization and adding
music in the last stages of post-production show that this characteristic
should not be taken for granted.
Hip Hop and Techno Composing
Techniques and Models of
Structuring in Darren Aronofsky’s π

Unlike Jarmusch, for whom artistic and economic independence are

non-negotiable conditions for all of his projects – which has also lim-
ited the scale of his budgets – Darren Aronofsky never made it a secret
that he saw his ‘guerrilla’ beginnings only as a step towards the opportu-
nity to work on big, studio-financed films. After his debut feature π won
Aronofsky the Best Director Prize at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival and
his next film Requiem for a Dream brought an Oscar nomination to one
of its stars, Ellen Burstyn, Aronofsky tried his luck with big budget films
first by working on a development of the new Batman movie – which
would later make Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, 2005) a household
name – then the ill-fated The Fountain (2006),1 before finally receiv-
ing worldwide success with Black Swan (2010). However, Aronofsky’s
new-found status does not change the fact that π was conceived and
realized as a complete ‘indie’, shot in black-and-white for $60,000,
revealing an original new talent with an already recognizable and soon-
to-be imitated style. Most importantly in this context, Aronofsky’s debut
was inspired by hip hop and techno music; it applied various tech-
niques and models of structuring typical of those musical genres in
the editing, employment of different cameras and shooting techniques,
sound design, music and in the organization of the micro- and macro-
structures, which resulted in π ’s overtly musical audio-visual style.

Paranoid filmmaking as an inspiration for paranoid


π is a film about patterns, based on patterns. Its main character is

the paranoid maths genius Max Cohen whose beliefs are exemplified
in a few Pythagorean principles: ‘1) mathematics is the language of

138 The Musicality of Narrative Film

nature; 2) everything around us can be represented and understood

through numbers; 3) if you graph the numbers of any system, patterns
emerge. Therefore: There are patterns everywhere in nature,’ (Aronofsky,
1998a, p. 88).
In terms of plot, π is conceived as a thriller and presented in a con-
ventional three-act form. However, the thriller aspects of the plot are
marginal to the story of Max’s search for patterns and his intense jour-
ney from isolation and obsessiveness to paranoia and insanity, and
then to the eventual renouncement of his genius for the safety of
Originally, Max’s conviction of the existence of mathematical patterns
in every facet of life prompts him to look for patterns behind the stock
market. After he encounters a group of Jewish mystics who introduce
him to the secrets of number patterns in the Torah, and the coinciding
increase in the frequency and intensity of his migraines with paranoid
hallucinations, Max’s investigation gradually becomes a search for the
explanation of the world and the ‘true name of God’.
The writer and director of π , Darren Aronofsky, has declared in many
interviews, as well as in his diary of the making of the film, that he
himself believes in patterns underlying the constitution of the whole

You look at DNA and you look at the Milky Way. That’s kind of weird
that they have similar form, similar shape [a spiral]. We’re built from
it, while living in a giant spiral. What does that mean? Maybe there
are a lot of spirals that we’re not quite seeing. We can see the big
one. We can see the small one. What’s in-between? . . . You start to see
spirals in nautilus shells, ram’s horns, in the way a plant grows – they
grow in spirals, in our bones we have spirals. Our fingertips, if you
look really closely there’s spirals.
(Aronofsky quoted in Anderson, 1998)

Aronofsky’s response to the subject was to create a form that reflects

this obsession with patterns in its every aspect, from the level of nar-
rative organization to every detail in the sonic and visual content. He
notes, though, that this approach has similarities with the obsessive
behaviour of the film’s character:

While working on this movie on paranoia, I started to realize that

the filmmaking process is a paranoid experience. Because they always
tell you in filmmaking that every single scene should relate to your
Darren Aronofsky’s π 139

main character, relate to your theme. And that’s exactly what para-
noid schizophrenics think their world is. That the entire world relates
to them. So filmmaking is a paranoid experience.
(Quoted in Anderson, 1998)

Aronofsky’s underlying ambivalence towards his film’s subject is

expressed in the structure of π which, although based on patterns and
about patterns, is framed (via its title and its conclusion) by the symbolic
antithesis to patterns and the embracing of a natural chaos.2
π is the letter of the Greek alphabet used in mathematics as a symbol
for the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. Rounded
off, it is equal to 3.1416, but the digits after the decimal point actually
stretch out to infinity, without ever repeating a pattern. As there is no
pattern in π the number, so the film ends up saying that it is impossible
to find order behind the constitution of the world. However, this con-
clusion still does not resolve the underlying ambiguity of π , as it is left
unclear whether Max finds himself unable to comprehend the pattern
behind all patterns, or if he truly experiences the deeper knowledge that
prompts him to destroy all evidence of his research and drill a hole in
his own skull.
At one point in the film, Max’s homemade computer, Euclid, crashes
after it prints out the 216-digit number that represents the numerical
symbol of the pattern Max is looking for. His mentor Sol tells Max that
the search for the pattern caused the computer to get stuck in a partic-
ular loop that led to meltdown and just before it crashed, the computer
became aware of its own structure. It is possible, and in a way suggested,
that when at the end of the film Max tries to communicate with God
by pronouncing the numerical symbols of his ‘true name’, he experi-
ences the same ‘awareness’ before his own meltdown. The other possible
interpretation is to write off Max’s obsession as a symptom of paranoia
and interpret his final decision as the renouncement of illness and the
embracement of life.
Similar to Aronofsky’s description of his filmmaking experience, this
case study will demonstrate the same symptoms of paranoia in its search
for connections, analogies and interactions between the film’s formal
and rhythmic structure and its kinetic charge on the one hand and the
compositional techniques, models of structuring and movement in hip
hop and techno music on the other. However, the first step in that direc-
tion leads through the net of patterns that permeates the structure of π
on all levels of its audio-visual organization: narrative, formal, visual,
sonic and musical.
140 The Musicality of Narrative Film

The patterns

Rarely has the idea of a film been transposed so consistently and so pro-
foundly onto all aspects of its content and audio-visual design. In the
same way Max believes everything we touch is infused with the pattern
of a spiral, so is π permeated with repetitions and patterns in all ele-
ments of its narrative and audio-visual structure on both the micro- and
Max’s obsessive thoughts about patterns are made audible through
his voice-over and articulated in the recurring variations of his ‘state-
ments’ and ‘assessments’ about patterns and their presence in nature.
His life follows the patterns of the same daily routines and is punc-
tuated by recurring blinding headaches whose patterns are always the
same. Moreover, the film is saturated with repetitions (repeated vari-
ations) of the same shots: cream spiralling in coffee, cigarette smoke
spiralling in the air and shells on a beach remind Max that spirals
are everywhere. The numbers of the stock market keep popping onto
the screen, and Max’s every attempt to find patterns behind them is
marked by a little pause before pressing the RETURN button on his
computer. The repeated sight of the board of a Go game is as much
a part of Max’s routine of playing games with Sol as it is a symbolic
‘microcosm of an extremely complex universe’ that may be regarded
ordered or chaotic, depending on whether you see it through Max’s or
Sol’s eyes. On the other hand, as Aronofsky (1998b) explains in his com-
mentary, the recurring shots of trees and the ants that keep showing up
in Max’s apartment are symbols of an organic nature that refuses to fit
into patterns the way Max wants it to. Obviously, the reappearances of
the same motifs, themes and shots are inspired and justified by the film’s
main idea. To this, Aronofsky (1998b) adds that, besides being econom-
ical, repetitions also contribute to the creation of the film’s distinctive
The patterns in the narrative and visual content are joined by patterns
in the sound design created from a mixture of Max’s voice-over, techno
music and a remarkable range of sound effects.3 All the voice-overs start
by stating an exact time and then repeating one of the phrases: ‘new
evidence’, ‘more evidence’, ‘restate my assumptions’, ‘personal note’.
As these phrases obtain the function of refrains within the context of
Max’s voice-overs so do two of his monologues within the framework of
the film’s overall structure (‘Mathematics is the language of nature . . . ’
and ‘When I was a little kid . . . ’). The constant ringing of the phone
(a homage to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, 1983) and
Darren Aronofsky’s π 141

the metrically organized sound effects of hip hop montage sequences

punctuate the film’s flow with deliberate regularity.
The same imagination and precision were employed in the creation of
the film’s visual design, particularly its kinetic aspects produced by the
camera work. According to Aronofsky (1998b), the main idea behind
the process was to use the camera to mimic, as much as possible, what is
going on in Max’s brain. This required the employment of a number of
different cameras and shooting techniques so that, for instance, Max’s
sense of isolation from his environment is depicted by shooting Max on
the street and in the subway with a Snorri Cam – a camera whose rig
is attached to Max himself. For the headache scenes Aronofsky used a
Vibrator Cam – a small camera with a long lens attached to the opera-
tor’s hand and shaken vigorously. Many exterior scenes showing Max’s
excitement or paranoid fear were shot with a hand-held camera and his
exterior point-of-view (POV) shots were usually accelerated to 18 or 12
frames per second. Because most of the film was shot with a ‘guerrilla
approach’ (shooting on location without permission), exterior and sub-
way shots were often covered by a 16mm camera, and the sound was
added subsequently.
The network of patterns in the editing and in the sonic and visual
design creates a complex repetitive structure that, in its dramaturgical
rhythm and the gradual intensification of the ‘dynamic’ level that some
of the repetitions create, resembles more a musical than a narrative film
form. The headache sequences depicting Max’s tortured mind through
sharpened visual and kinetic contrasts are a good example of how a par-
ticular pattern is given significant structural, dramaturgical, and stylistic
The most intense parts of headache sequences are emphasized kinet-
ically through a montage of medium shots of Max twitching in pain
and details of his body shot using a Vibrator Cam, whereas the hallu-
cinations are mostly shot on a fixed camera. The visual expressionism
is enhanced by electronically generated noises that increase the sense
of physical torture and complete loss of control, sounding literally as if
they are coming from Max’s head. The most painful parts of the attacks
come alive through the sharp, screeching and hooting sounds similar
to those of a train pulling up in an underground station. As Max’s
research progresses and he obtains deeper insights into the omnipres-
ence of patterns in both the organic and non-organic worlds, so does
his commitment deepen; his headaches become more intense, the pain
more severe and the hallucinations wilder. The line between paranoid
hallucinations and reality begins to blur, the visions become more
142 The Musicality of Narrative Film

outrageous, black-and-white contrasts sharpen, and the sounds become

more threatening. The intensifications of the headaches, reflected in
the corresponding, increasingly ‘dense’ audio-visual design, thus estab-
lish the main platforms for macro-rhythmic gradation, generating the
main impetus for both narrative progression and the kinetic power that
gradually intensifies π ’s audio-visual impact.
Preceding the headache attacks are miniature montage sequences
showing Max taking his medicines and painkillers. Each sequence fol-
lows the same pattern consisting of a series of striking short shots
rhythmically punctuated by sound effects: a bottle of pills is opened,
pills are taken into the hand, swallowed, the cap is replaced on the bot-
tle. Named by Aronofsky (1998b) as ‘hip hop montage’, the method of
audio-visual editing used in these sequences would be developed into an
elaborate editing principle in his subsequent film Requiem for a Dream,
becoming one of his trademarks.

Hip hop editing

According to Aronofsky’s explanation offered in the director’s commen-

tary on the π DVD, his use of the expression ‘hip hop montage’ refers
mostly to the fact that these montage sequences are applied as samples
throughout the film, reminding us of Max’s affliction and his depen-
dence on medicine. Although the process of sampling was not invented
by hip hop artists, hip hop is generally credited with popularizing the
practice of using fragments of existing records or other sound sources in
short form for the creation of loops as a basis for new musical tracks.
The ideas typical of hip hop style in music and culture originate in
the mid-1970s, when Jamaican-born DJ Kool Herc got bored while play-
ing current hits at discos and park-parties and sought out more obscure
records in order to play only their instrumental breaks or the ‘hottest’
parts of them, over and over again, until they sounded like new records.
This practice, as well as Herc’s decision to ‘improve’ his presentation by
inviting a friend (Coke La Rock) to be his master of ceremonies (MC)
who would rap and talk over the music, contains the seed of the whole
musical aesthetics of hip hop: the use of already existing and available
sources for the making of new artefacts and the abandonment of con-
ventional pop-music forms for the opportunity of making collages of
the most striking, most exciting, most ‘catchy’ fragments.
Yet, it is important to note here that Aronofsky’s approach to sam-
pling differs from standard hip hop practices in the sense that he never
uses any pre-existing material of a source other than his own footage.
Darren Aronofsky’s π 143

He turns visual segments of his own film into the sampling material
by creating a pattern out of montage sequences which is then rein-
serted throughout the film. Moreover, this principle of self-sampling is
applied not only to montage sequences but to a number of visual and
sonic details throughout π . The aforementioned repetitions of the same
shots, motifs and themes (spirals, trees, ants, Go board and so on) are
as much compliant with the film’s main idea as with the principles of
music composition based on sampling. As similar principles can be rec-
ognized in the patterning of both the sound and visual designs in π ,
this suggests that ideas typical of musical forms based on repetition and
sampling (and that can be either rap or techno) have permeated this
film’s structure on more than one level.
The influence of hip hop in π does not stop with the employment
of sampling but includes other techniques associated with its musical
style. As Brian Cross (1993, p. 18) explains, the use of record turnta-
bles as musical instruments and the enjoyment of hearing the sound
of a record being moved backwards and forwards rapidly, established
fracture, rupture and interruption as the main tools of a hip hop DJ,
which affected hip hop art in general. According to Tricia Rose (1994,
pp. 38–9), breakdancing, graffiti, rapping and musical composition all
demonstrate a stylistic continuity that seems to be centred around three
concepts: flow, layering and ruptures in line. The sweeping and curving
letters ornamented with many layers in graffiti are cut by sudden breaks
in line, breakdancing steps are based on continuous movement but use
popping and locking as angular breaks, while the techniques of scratch-
ing and punch phrasing interrupt the flow of music built on multilayered
textures of different music sources and sampled loops.
Playing with a sound, emphasizing the rhythmic qualities not only
of the music itself but also of the turntables as instruments, the repeti-
tions and breaks in the flow, punching and scratching as sound effects –
all these aspects of hip-hop music influenced Aronofsky’s innovative
approach to editing. The technique which π ’s style of montage brings
particularly to mind is punch phrasing, which is created by playing a
quick burst from a record on one turntable while a record on the other
turntable is still playing. According to Dick Hebdige (1987, p. 139), the
punch in hip hop has the same function as a punctuation mark in a sen-
tence: ‘it helps to give shape to the flow of sounds on the record in the
same way that a comma or a full stop helps to shape the flow of written
language.’ This especially applies to the hip hop montage sequences of
Max taking pills, the first of which is introduced at the very beginning
of the film (0.02.17.).4
144 The Musicality of Narrative Film

The first shot after the opening credits shows Max opening his eyes
and shaking off the remnants of yet another attack. The opening line of
his voice-over introduces one of π ’s main refrains:

Personal note: When I was a little kid my mother told me not to stare
into the sun. So once, when I was six, I did.

The following lines are slightly varied throughout the film:

The doctors didn’t know if my eyes would ever heal. I was terrified.
Alone in that darkness. Slowly daylight crept in through the bandages
and I could see. But something else had changed inside me. That day
I had my first headache.

The ensuing hip hop montage sequence was originally described in

the screenplay as follows:

TIGHT SHOT on Max’s hand as three unmarked, circular pills hit

his palm. Then, he slams the pills into the back of his mouth.
Max replaces the cap on the plastic bottle of unmarked prescription
(Aronofsky, 1998a, p. 66)

In the film this part of the screenplay is realized through several very
short shots punctuated by metrically regular sound effects, the function
of which is similar to that of punch phrasing. In its first appearance
the pattern indicates the repetitiveness of the action, which for Max is
an unavoidable routine, but later suggests also the urgency of it, the
anticipation of the pain and the fear that follows it.
Unlike the screenplay, in the film these shots are followed by a view
of the stairs in Max’s building, a shot of Max looking through the peep-
hole in his front door, and again one longer and two very short shots
showing four locks on the door being unbolted. These two ‘hip hop
segments’ (taking medicines, unbolting the locks) with the two shots
between them, together create a montage sequence that is organized as
a miniature ABA’ music pattern (Figure 8.1).

A: 1. the bottle is open

2. pills hit the palm
3. slamming pills into the mouth
4. cap goes back on the bottle
Darren Aronofsky’s π 145

B: 1. shot of the stairs Voice-over: That day I had my first

2. Max looking through the peephole
A’: 1. first lock on the door is unbolted
then another lock is unbolted
2. and another lock is unbolted
3. and another lock is unbolted

The ABA’ shape of this section should not be understood as a sign of

its structural autonomy or self-sufficiency but simply as a description of
this segment’s formal outline, which is also the case with all other anal-
ysed segments of π described in terms of musical forms. It can be rightly
argued that the ‘natural’, ‘musical’ beginning of this sequence really
starts with the first shots of Max and the beginning of his voice-over,
to which the hip hop montage sequence comes as a cadence, affirming
the punctuating function of punch phrasing. However, since the focus
of the analysis in this sequence is on the segment demarcated by hip
hop montage technique, its formal description is used to simplify the
descriptive process and also to emphasize the musical background and
potential of Aronofsky’s editing techniques.

Figure 8.1 Max Cohen taking his pills (π , Darren Aronofsky, 1998)
146 The Musicality of Narrative Film

Figure 8.2 Rhythmic transcription of sound effects accompanying the images of

Max taking pills (π , Darren Aronofsky, 1998)

Figure 8.3 Rhythmic transcription of sound effects accompanying the images of

Max locking the door (π , Darren Aronofsky, 1998)

The first few shots are punctuated by exaggerated diegetic sounds

appearing on the metrically regular beats of a 4/4 measure (Figure 8.2).
The middle section has two slightly longer shots that last for approx-
imately three and two beats respectively. The last three shots are
punctuated by the diegetic sounds of unbolting locks, which are again
metrically regular (Figure 8.3).
When watched in slow-motion, it becomes clear that action num-
ber 3 (putting pills into the mouth) is broken into three separate shots
(open mouth/hand brings the pills toward the mouth/closed mouth – as
shown in Figure 8.1) that together last approximately as long as each of
the shots covering actions 1, 2 and 4 from section A. When compared
by duration, the three longer shots and the three shorter shots from
section A differ among themselves by the length of several frames, but
having decided to prioritize illustrative value over absolute metronomic
precision it seemed appropriate to present the visual rhythm (length of
the shots) of the ABA’ sequence as shown in Figure. 8.4, while Figure 8.5
presents the transcription of the sonic rhythm.
The rhythm of the framing hip hop sequences is most efficiently
represented through the rhythmic transcription of the sound effects,

Figure 8.4 Transcription of the visual rhythm of the pill-taking/door-locking

scene (π, Darren Aronofsky, 1998)

Figure 8.5 Transcription of the sonic rhythm of the pill-taking/door-locking

scene (π, Darren Aronofsky, 1998)
Darren Aronofsky’s π 147

Figure 8.6 Transcription of the audio-visual rhythm of the pill-taking/

door-locking scene (π , Darren Aronofsky, 1998)

because they are the most distinctive aspects of their rhythmic content.
On the other hand, as there are no striking sound effects in the middle
section, it makes sense to present this segment rhythmically through
the length of its shots. The distinctive sonic and visual features of the
ABA’ sequence can be combined in its audio-visual rhythm as shown in
Figure 8.6.
It might seem reasonable to say that only four beats (technically one
measure of music) representing the action of taking pills are not long
enough to be interpreted as a segment of a musical ABA form. In this
case, however, I believe that the comparison is not only illustrative but
also justified in that these four ‘crotchets’ represent a number of shots
accompanied by metrically regular sound effects that together create a
visual ‘phrase’ which is ‘reprised’ through its audio-visual editing style
in the montage sequence showing the unbolting of the locks.
Despite Aronofsky’s tracing of the musical inspiration for his editing
techniques to hip hop, it could be argued that they are also reminiscent
of a musical dub5 (which is nevertheless ‘related’ to hip hop through reg-
gae as its predecessor in terms of using cut’n’mix techniques and music
talk-overs). Although Aronofsky does not use the editing equivalents
of reverb and echo, so typical of dub style, his approach in the hip hop
montage segments evokes the essential principles of dub by stripping off
the decorative layers so as to leave ‘the bare bones’. In music, it means
taking off instrumental lines for the sake of emphasizing the bass line
and foregrounding pure rhythm. In the case of π ’s montage, it means
underplaying the narrative aspect of the audio-visual material in order
to accentuate the rhythmical one.
The ABA’ formal outline of the opening hip hop sequence is subse-
quently deconstructed, and the segments of taking pills and unbolting
locks are used throughout the film separately. In the third act, the
pattern breaks for the first time (1.12.00), as Max decides not to take his
medicines, with startling consequences. The same approach was used
in Requiem for a Dream, in which a pattern of taking drugs is suddenly
148 The Musicality of Narrative Film

broken in the third act, announcing dramatic changes in both the plot
and the destiny of its protagonists. The reasoning is that by repeat-
ing the same pattern throughout the film the audience gets used to
the routine of an action (taking pills, taking drugs) and is more alert
to the moment when the pattern breaks and change breaks through
(Aronofsky, 1998b).
While the percussive character of hip hop montage segments and
their punctuating function on the micro-level evoke the technique of
punch phrasing, on a macro level they are perceived as breaks. As Tricia
Rose (1994, p. 70) points out, the musical flow of rap music, which is
based on repetition, loops and circulating rhythms, is systematically
ruptured by cuts or breaks, but since these breaks are themselves looped,
their repetitions ‘reposition’ them as ‘equilibrium inside the rupture’.
And that is exactly what happens in π : the numerous narrative, visual
and sonic patterns create different layers of ‘loops’ on the macro level;
the hip hop editing breaks are inserted as cuts or ruptures into the flow,
yet the repetition of those ruptures itself constitutes a pattern and thus
balances out the effect of those ruptures on the film’s macro level.

Audio-visual kinesis and musical patterning

Considering how much of π ’s visual and narrative content is based

on repetition, one might wonder how the film generates any kind of
movement at all. However, due to its innovative cinematic language,
musically created soundtrack,6 sharpened sense of detail and, most of
all, its editing that encourages interaction between the internal and
external, sonic and visual aspects of rhythm, all these repetitions in the
film become the means of its multifarious and multileveled rhythmic
structure with a vigorous kinetic drive.
One of the most extraordinary aspects of π ’s kinesis is its complex
internal rhythm created by the use of different cameras, techniques and
shooting speeds. As mentioned in the section about patterns, this elab-
orate approach to camera work resulted from the intention to show
as convincingly as possible what goes on inside Max’s head and how
he reacts to his environment. His painful headaches, attacks of para-
noia, sense of detachment from his surroundings and manic moods are
depicted through the employment of all sorts of cameras and shoot-
ing techniques, from the ordinary, fixed 35 mm camera, 16 mm camera
and hand-held camera to Vibrator Cam and Snorri Cam. The result is a
ceaseless and most of all unpredictable visual stream with many inter-
ruptions, sudden changes and jerky movements. Max’s agitated moods
Darren Aronofsky’s π 149

are also depicted by recording his POV shots at different speeds (18 and
12 frames per second) which, combined with the normal speed of shoot-
ing (24 frames per sec), add yet another layer to the already complex
rhythmic and kinetic design of this film.
The combination of generally short montage fragments and hip hop
editing techniques with the extremely complex internal rhythm of
camera movement and different shooting speeds provides a distinctive
kinetic style that is largely responsible for inducing the general sense of
discomfort and suspense in π . On the other hand, the film’s heteroge-
neous kinetic qualities might also have caused a sense of inconsistency
and disparity if it were not for the presence of π ’s patterns and repe-
titions to anchor it. As in the case of the hip hop montage sequence
analysed earlier, these patterns often follow the logic of musical struc-
turing. How the audio-visual kinesis of π obtains its musical features
is best observed in the longer sequences that combine the rhythm of
camera movement, percussive rhythm of hip hop editing, kinetic drive
of the music track, sound effects and Max’s voice-over, while using the
principles of musical patterning.
An illustrative example is the ‘Spiral epiphany’7 sequence (0.40.29–
0.44.27), which is built upon the framework of musical material identi-
fied by Aronofsky as Max’s theme. Apart from the opening and closing
titles Max’s theme is also heard in the scene at the end of the first act
(0.16.42–0.18.16)8 which, like the ‘Spiral epiphany’ sequence, shows
Max immersed in his research and excited about his ideas so that
the theme symbolically identifies him with his work, clearly his only
passion and obsession. At the same time, the character of the music con-
tributes immensely to the build-up of the kinetic drive that both scenes
The music in the ‘Spiral epiphany’ sequence is introduced when Max
starts examining through a microscope a sticky substance found in his
computer after it crashed. The theme has a typical techno 4/4 beat with
a prominent percussion line, which is substituted with the repetition of
a single ringing ‘stand by’ sound (made of a semitone interval) when
Max stops his work to make a phone call and then again later, when he
is interrupted by a knocking on his front door. Another layer added to
the instrumental music background comes in the form of Max’s voice-
over, which is, in the tradition of hip hop, either placed over the music
as a talk-over or presented ‘dry’ as a ‘punch-line’, when announcing the
important insights.
Towards the end, the sequence changes to exterior shots of Max
wandering through the crowded streets of Chinatown. Max’s usually
150 The Musicality of Narrative Film

accelerated POV shots are sped up even more (from 18 frames per sec-
ond to 12 frames per second in this scene), suggesting a special state of
excitement while he himself is shot standing still, and the camera cir-
cles around him. Max continues talking over the music with one of his
recurring voice-over refrains: ‘When I was a little kid, my mother told
me not to stare into the sun . . . ’. He concludes with the new hypothesis:

If we’re built from spirals, while living in a giant spiral, then

everything we put our hands to is infused with the spiral.9

The drumming layer of the music here is gone, the picture shows a
montage of mathematical images and Max’s last voice-over comes as a

10.15. Personal note: It’s fair to say, I’m stepping out on a limb. But
I am on the edge and that’s where it happens.

This sequence lasts four minutes and is perceived as a formal unit

that in its content, impeccable sense of rhythm and kinetic character
resembles a music video. At the same time, its formal structure can also
be represented in the nomenclature of classical music forms as a rondo
with a theme, two episodes and a coda. The ‘theme’ corresponds to the
sequence of edited fragments showing Max at work and is accompanied
by the actual musical theme. The episodes are the interruptions between
those fragments (a phone call, the girl Devi at the front door) accompa-
nied by the repetition of the ‘stand by’ sound. This form is also typical of
techno music, in which sections with pumping rhythm alternate with
more ambient-like, non-percussive episodes.
The rhythm of alternating themes and episodes shows an exquisite
sense of timing, so that the proportions of the durations of the first
two appearances of the theme and the episodes stay approximately the

1. The theme (0.40.29–0.41.16) 47’

2. 1st episode (0.41.16–0.41.32) 16’
3. The theme (0.41.32–0.42.28) 56’
4. 2nd episode (0.42.28–0.42.46) 18’
5. The theme (0.42.46–0.43.31 + 0.43.32–0.44.08) 45’ + 36’
6. Coda (0.44.09–0.44.27) 18’

It is unlikely that Aronofsky and his editor Oren Sarch sat in the
editing room with a stop-watch and cut the fragments according to their
metrical values; rather, it is more probable that the sequence follows the
Darren Aronofsky’s π 151

logic of the musical form intuitively. Judging by the fact that all episodes
are underscored by a single repetitive tone, which can be repeated for as
long as necessary, it is reasonable to assume that the music was written
for a rough cut of the sequence. Once finished though, it not only pro-
vided the pulse for the micro-editing of short segments, but imposed a
musical logic upon the rhythm of the whole sequence, which influenced
the almost regular succession of its main sections.
The way the music stops during the second theme when Max pauses
between the words ‘major contribution’ and ‘the Golden Ratio’, and
then continues again, is also typical of DJs hip hop practice when they
accompany a rap performance:

See, if you’re a DJ, the best thing you can do for a rapper is when he
is rhyming sometimes you have to cut the music off, and then bring
it back in and do a certain scratch . . . Like rappers might be saying
something and when it gets to his punch line bring it down. When
he gets to his next line, bring it back in.
(DJ Kid Capri quoted in Johnson, 1994, pp. 48–9)

The third appearance of the theme is extended by additional cadence-

like musical material (0.43.32–0.44.08) and the reappearance of the
voice-over refrain ‘When I was a little kid . . . ’. The real cadence in terms
of the significance of the content and its delivery is not in the music but
in the concluding hypothesis of Max’s monologue (‘If we’re built from
spirals . . . ’). This example indeed confirms that Max’s voice-over repre-
sents another layer of the musical soundtrack, which is as important
and as musical as Clint Mansell’s score.10 First, not only are Max’s voice-
overs based on repetitions and patterns, but they are also written (by
Aronofsky and Sean Gullette who plays Max) with a sharpened sense for
the rhythm of the sentence and musicality of language. Second, they are
delivered by Gullette with the same ‘musical’ approach that follows the
inherent rhythm of the speeches and gives them additional emphasis
through accents and occasional dramatic pauses.
Max’s voice-overs are made of short sentences (he is a mathemati-
cian!), and are thus convenient for delivering over a percussive score.
Even the longer ones are constructed in a musical way, like the mono-
logue in which Max recounts all the treatments he tried for his
headaches, which resembles rapping:

Beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers, adrenalin injections,

high-dose ibuprofen, steroids, trager metasitics, violent exercise,
cafergot suppositories, caffeine, acupuncture, marijuana, Percodan,
Midrin, Tenormin, Sansert, homeopathics. No results. No results.
152 The Musicality of Narrative Film

The familiar phrases at the beginning of every voice-over (‘new evi-

dence’, ‘restate my assumptions’, ‘personal note’ and so on) very quickly
become recognized as refrains, and that is also the case with two of Max’s
main monologues (‘When I was a little kid . . . ’ and ‘Mathematics is the
language of nature . . . ’). The first appearance of the second monologue
(0.02.53–0.03.57) exemplifies how the inherent musicality of a written
text gets emphasized by, or even inspires, a visual presentation that itself
follows the logic of musical patterning.
The scene starts with Max walking through the busy streets of
Chinatown. As his voice-over begins (‘12.45. Restate my assumptions’)
the picture shows Max’s accelerated POV shot. The statements ‘One:
Mathematics is the language of nature,’ ‘Two: Everything around us can
be represented and understood through numbers,’ and ‘Three: If you
graph the numbers of any system, patterns emerge,’ are visually cov-
ered by shots of Max’s face that are recorded by a Snorri Cam attached
to his body (Figure 8.7). These sentences/statements are divided by
accelerated POV shots of a similar length (approximately four seconds).
Alternating Max’s close-ups (accompanied by his voice-over) with POV
shots without sound is executed in a familiar, metrically proportional
manner, closely resembling simple musical or poetic forms: ABABAB or
line/refrain; line/refrain; line/refrain, and so on. Corresponding to the
closing line of the assumptions (‘Therefore: There are patterns every-
where in nature,’) is the visual cadence of a scene presented through the
shot of a branch moving slowly in the wind, which becomes established
as one of the crucial visual and symbolic refrains of π .

A: accelerated POV shot voice-over:

(busy street in Chinatown) 4” 12.45 Restate my assumptions.
B: close-up of Max 3” One: Mathematics is the
language of nature.
A1: accelerated POV 4”
B: close-up of Max 4” Two: Everything around us can
be represented through numbers.
A1: accelerated POV 4”
B: close-up of Max 4” Three: If you graph the numbers
of any system, patterns emerge.
A1: accelerated POV 3”
C: branch shaking in the 4” Therefore: There are patterns
wind everywhere in nature.
Darren Aronofsky’s π 153

Figure 8.7 Max Cohen stating his assumptions about patterns in nature
(π , Darren Aronofsky, 1998)

The musical fluidity of this particular sequence is not only the result
of its ‘metrical’ editing that follows the musical (or poetic) logic of
Max’s voice-over, although that is certainly a significant part of it. Even
more important is the morphing potential of its constituent units –
their ability to merge into and become part of subsequent formal units.
The beginning of the analysed segment pointing to the inherent musi-
cal logic of this sequence’s formal design coincides with the beginning
of Max’s voice-over, but it would be equally justified to start with the
overtly musical ‘introduction’ – the panning shot showing Max walking
outside in a park in which tai-chi is being practised, while the accompa-
nying music provides both a local ethnic flavour and lyrical atmosphere.
The concluding assumption (‘Therefore: There are patterns . . . ’) is iden-
tified as the cadence of the sequence, but it is actually extended further
through the voice-over stating the examples for the assumptions, while
154 The Musicality of Narrative Film

Max’s close-ups and the shots of the trees continue to alternate, but now
metrically accelerated. The scene then merges into the new assumptions
about patterns behind the stock market and so on.
The same principle of building small units similar to musical forms
and then extending them, or making them part of bigger ones is
employed consistently throughout the film. Even though all the
analysed sequences have been described in terms of musical forms
(ABA form, rondo, song with refrain) none of them stands isolated
within those formal outlines but always continues its movement,
merges into the next formal unit and joins the movement of the film’s
general flow – unless deliberately terminated by a ‘punctuation mark’
actualized in the form of a blackout, the flash of a white void or some
similar visual device.
Naturally, it can be argued that every film does the same: every
shot is part of some scene, which is part of a sequence, and so on.
In a film, however, the connection that binds the shots and scenes
together is narrative and is based on the unity of space and time. The
way scenes and sequences in π establish and can be identified as a
part of smaller self-contained units, while simultaneously merging so
that the cadence of one sequence becomes the introduction or begin-
ning of another, resembles more the hierarchical structures of musical
forms than the classical linear structure of a narrative film. Besides, the
formal constituents of a classical narrative film will rarely have their
segments organized rhythmically the way they are in π . And when
I say rhythmically I am not even referring to the metrical rhythm
of the sound effects in the hip hop montage sequences or the metri-
cal proportions of montage segments in the longer sequences. In this
case I am emphasizing the rhythmical audio-visual relations between
the voice-over and its visual presentation, the aspects of reprise within
the smallest segments actualized in the reappearance of the same or
similar shots (‘Song with refrain’ sequence), the reappearance of the
musical theme (‘Spiral epiphany’), or the reprised percussive aspect of
the rhythm of diegetic sound effects (ABA’ hip hop montage sequence).
And even setting aside for a moment the comparison with musical pat-
terns as the ‘evidence’ of π ’s musicality, there is no doubt that the
way the fluent rhythm of editing interacts with the rhythms of cam-
era movement, music and voice-overs, and the way the micro-forms
of montage segments ‘grow’ hierarchically into the macro-forms of
longer sequences, generate the power of the film’s audio-visual kinetic
Darren Aronofsky’s π 155

Techno flow

While hip hop montage and editing in general took care of the film’s
external rhythm, and most of its internal rhythm was created by cam-
era movement, the sonic aspect of the film’s overall sense of musicality
is defined by the film’s techno soundtrack. Here, the original techno
score by Clint Mansell and Max’s voice-overs are complemented by the
rhythmic accents of hip hop sequences (pill taking, locks unbolting) and
amplified diegetic sounds (firing a vaccination gun into his arm, drilling
through parts of the computer, opening the suitcase with the super-chip
in it, dripping blood and doors shaking in the hallucination sequences,
and so on). These are reinforced by electronically generated non-diegetic
sound effects which blend into the overall techno sound.
From this perspective, the complete soundtrack of π is organized as
a techno score. Although Mansell’s original score constitutes its core,11
π ’s soundtrack expresses the ethos of techno music which erases the
limits of what is considered a ‘legitimate’ musical source, allowing any
noise or vibration or even a binary code to become part of music.
One could argue that this extension of the sound palette can be cred-
ited to electronic music in general and traced back to Cage and to the
experiments in musique concrète from the late 1940s. However, these
pioneering attempts did not have a wider application in music prac-
tice until experiments with digital electronics in so-called popular music
brought these sounds to general use, so that all kinds of quotidian noises
came to be regarded as potential ‘music’.
π ’s diegetic sounds – locks unbolting, pill-taking, telephone ring-
ing and drilling, joined by computer-generated (or not) non-diegetic
sounds of screeching, hooting and trains braking – are added to the
music soundtrack as accents that take part in defining the rhythmic
network of π ’s audio-visual structure. The actual interchangeability of
sound effects with music is particularly obvious in one of the halluci-
nation scenes in the subway, when Max sees a man whose right hand
is dripping blood. The exaggerated, amplified sound of drops hitting
the ground actually comes from Banco de Gaia’s track ‘Drippy’, which
then becomes the musical background in the following scene with Max
on a train. The employed sound effects also make the sensual aspects of
scenes more physically real, almost palpable. While different visual tech-
niques take us through Max’s manic moods, headaches and paranoid
hallucinations, the sounds make real the noise in Max’s head, actualize
his pain and give life to his hallucinations.
156 The Musicality of Narrative Film

Aronofsky himself admits in his diaries that he used to make fun of his
friend and future producer Eric Watson, because he was ‘into the early
electronic music scene’. But ‘little did I know’, says Aronofsky (1998a,
p. 5), that ‘electronica was on its way to replacing hip hop as the new
underground’. This comment supports my thesis that as much as hip
hop formed Aronofsky’s musical taste, and his general approach to film
editing as a sampling process, techno was the music style that not only
influenced but also made possible π ’s soundtrack as the combination
of diegetic and non-diegetic sounds and music, and deeply infused the
kinetic sense of the whole film. The truth is that, although most aspects
of π ’s external rhythm are the result of a ‘hip hop approach’ to editing,
the presence of Mansell’s score from the very beginning, the electronic
drone behind most of its scenes, the frightening noises in the headache
sequences, and even some of Max’s monologues fit into the ‘techno feel’
of the film. And rightly so, because Max is a man of modern science
and his homemade computer, Euclid, is an extension of his own bril-
liant brain. It is his tool and his most trusted friend. The main theme
might be called Max’s theme, but its main underlying sound (the ringing
‘stand by’ sound from the episodes in the ‘Spiral epiphany’ sequence)
appears to come from Max’s computer and is often present during the
moments when Max is waiting for Euclid to print out the results of his
latest research.
The role of the soundtrack is crucial in how it acts as the unifying
agent for the sequences made of different visual fragments. The agitated
rhythm of the camera movement and the different speeds of camera
work could easily be perceived as an indistinct flow of images if there
were no sound effects and music to establish their pulse. The general
kinetic drive of the film is also influenced by the affective properties of
the employed music. Max’s manic moods and the excitement that spills
over in the ‘Spiral epiphany’ sequence would hardly be perceived with
such palpability if they were not fed by the music’s vigorous drumming.
The sense of urgency and paranoid suspense are certainly conveyed
through the film’s expressionistic visual style, camera movement and
editing, but the physical terror of Max’s migraines and the film’s gen-
eral feeling of discomfort and anxiety come mostly from the realm of
sound, its amplified diegetic and non-diegetic effects and the almost
continuous presence of electronically produced music.
To conclude, it was hip hop that gave Aronofsky the idea to edit sound
in regular beats, accentuate the rhythmic function of these sequences,
and insist on the percussive quality of the sound effects. Hip-hop music
also instigated the employment of sampling processes in the film and
Darren Aronofsky’s π 157

the treatment of visual, and not just sonic, material as a sampling source,
which resulted in the film’s innovative editing techniques. Thus, regard-
ing the use of sampling techniques in the editing and the focus on
the rhythmic aspects of it, π fulfils Aronofsky’s ambition for it to be
considered as the first film to apply the principles of hip-hop music to
While the hip hop editing style determines π ’s micro-rhythm, its
macro-rhythm and kinetic drive are much more influenced by techno
music and the repetition of visual and sonic refrains throughout the
film. Techno music gives the pulse to scenes in which it is present,
while providing the rhythmic scaffold for the montage of (metrically
proportional) longer segments within single sequences. It also inspires
the general techno feel of the film, so that diegetic and non-diegetic
sound effects, as well as parts of Max’s inner monologues, are often per-
ceived as part of the techno-score. The infusion of techno sounds into
all aspects of the film’s soundtrack and the way the soundtrack interacts
with the theme and visual kinetic aspects of the film also make π one
of the first films to employ the principles of techno music composing in
Although the influences of particular musical genres are easier to
detect and discuss than abstract musical ‘instincts’ of unspecified ori-
gin, the latter are nevertheless also present in the creation of π . They
are exemplified in the film’s kinetic drive generated on a macro-level by
the gradual progression of dramaturgical and audio-visual intensity built
particularly through the headache sequences, and the ability to main-
tain the continuity of audio-visual flow in which formal micro-patterns
smoothly merge into hierarchically bigger units.
Yet, in the same way musical analysis reveals only the intellectual and
technical elements behind the existence and creation of music and the
musical score shows the content of a piece but not its actual musicality,
so it is the case with the musicality of film. Apart from the ‘analytically
measured’ aspects of π ’s musicality discussed in this study, there are also
those that exist on the perceptive level inaccessible by analytical tools
and verbal description. The rhythm of visual and sonic repetitions and
interactions, audio-visual ‘phrasing’, the music of Max’s voice-over, the
external rhythm of hip hop editing and its kinetic drive generated by
the internal rhythm of the camera work, techno music, diegetic and
non-diegetic sound effects – all these elements work together in a way
that prompts us to experience the whole film as a piece of intermedia
art which is as fluent as music itself.
Audio-Visual Musicality and
Reflexivity in Joe Wright’s Anna

In one of the minor episodes in Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, Anna

and Vronsky, while travelling abroad, visit the studio of their com-
patriot, the painter Mikhaylov, in order to commission a portrait of
Anna. They bestow the usual compliments on the artist’s work but
one of Vronsky’s casual remarks about his technique ‘grates painfully
on Mikhaylov’s heart’, prompting a paragraph-long reflection on the
distinction between technique and content. Mikhaylov ‘had often
noticed’, says Tolstoy (1999, p. 471), ‘that technique was contrasted
with inner quality, as if it were possible to paint well something that
was bad . . . . the most experienced and technical painter could never
paint anything by means of mechanical skill alone, if the outline of
the subject-matter did not first reveal itself to his mind’.
Tolstoy’s musings on the perennial question of the relationship
between form and content and the artificial separation of technique
from the work itself seem particularly topical when discussing the latest
screen adaptation of Anna Karenina (2012) – the fourteenth to appear
on the big screen since 1911– scripted by Tom Stoppard and directed by
Joe Wright. This tragic story of a married Russian aristocrat who leaves
her husband and son to pursue a love affair with a younger man has
been the subject of numerous other adaptations on the small screen,
stage and radio, but none of them has challenged the expectations
of audiences and critics as boldly as Wright’s extravagantly stylized,
choreographed and musicalized version set within the confines of an
old theatre and marked by a reflexive and self-conscious form. The
hugely divisive reactions among critics ranged from passionate support
describing Wright’s stylization as a ‘bravura approach [which] actually
enhances the moral themes and the social context, illuminating the
story in a fresh, contemporary light’ (Urban, 2012) to accusations that

Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina 159

the film is ‘grossly divorced from the novel’ (Heinemann Jr., 2012) and
that the artifice of its self-conscious form ‘trivialised’ the characters’ suf-
fering (Papamichael, 2012). Most significantly, though, reviewers who
did not like Wright’s film complained that the Russian heroine was
‘upstaged by her director’ (Papamichael), and that ‘Wright’s virtuosity,
initially attractive and exciting, ends up as a major distraction’ (French,
This tension between respected literary text and highly stylized
cinematic language is not a new bone of contention among critics,
although it has been most often associated with the many adaptations
of Shakespeare’s works, with Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991),
Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Derek Jarman’s The Tempest
(1979) coming to mind as some of the most striking examples of con-
temporary cinematic readings of classics. What is particularly interesting
in this case is that the boundaries of reflexive cinematic language were
never before pushed so far in this genre with the specific intention to
musicalize form to the point of absorbing the influences of contempo-
rary theatre and ballet all at once. In that sense, Wright’s work is not
only comparable to other bold adaptations but sits equally comfortably
in the context of reflexive cinema which has often been paired with a
musical approach to the film medium, as in the work of Tarantino where
reflexivity is exemplified through communication with other texts, or
in Tom Tykwer’s (Run, Lola, Run), Jarmusch’s (The Limits of Control) and
Aronofsky’s early films in which musical filmmaking is associated with
a self-conscious treatment of film form and narration.
In Wright’s adaptation the significance of music is evident not only
in the ubiquitous presence of Dario Marianelli’s original score but also
in its role as an implicit blueprint for choreography, camera movement,
seamless editing, elaborate mise-en-scène and sound design. The familiar
principles of flow and morphing are here reinforced with the method
of stylistic highlighting. In this chapter I will explore the use of these
three principles in relation to various audio-visual devices, arguing that
Wright’s innately musical approach to the film medium results in a
particular type of reflexive cinema which could be called hedonistic as
opposed to alienating. I will contend that the reason Wright has been
able to bypass the distancing side effects of reflexive form is because
many of the aspects of his cinematic style that subvert the expecta-
tions of conventional storytelling serve the same purpose as Tolstoy’s
inner monologues and ‘psychological eavesdropping’ (Leontiev quoted
in Greenwood, 1999, p. xi), allowing insight into characters’ intimate
thoughts, moods and states of mind and conveying a strong sense of
160 The Musicality of Narrative Film

different characters’ subjective points of view. Thus, while the following

analysis aims to reveal the complex collaborative nature of the inher-
ently musical innovative strategies applied in Anna Karenina it will also
explore how these strategies were inspired by Wright’s and Marianelli’s
interpretations of the novel’s most dominant themes, its characters and
their motivations.

Love and lust

Although Anna Karenina’s highly stylized audio-visual language

undoubtedly had a divisive effect on critics and audiences alike, one
could argue that, if one is attempting to adapt for screen an 800-page
novel which is not only one of the great examples of literary psycholog-
ical realism but also offers a comprehensive look at 1870s Russia with
all its political, social and religious nuances, stylization seems not only
a reasonable but even a necessary approach. The intriguing aspect of
Wright’s adaptation is the fact that his highly ornate and musicalized
stylization is combined with a palpable effort to preserve a strong con-
nection with its literary source by emphasizing the subjective aspect of
the protagonists’ experiences. In that sense, the accusations that the film
is ‘grossly divorced from the novel’ are not only exaggerated but simply
incorrect. More problematic, though, is Wright’s exclamatory rejection
of the popular reading of the novel which interprets Anna Karenina as
a ‘great romantic love story in which Anna is martyred, the victim of
a patriarchal society’ and his insistence that Tolstoy’s novel is ‘more a
great lust story than a great love story’ (Rafferty, 2012). His statement
is misleading not only because it does not fully acknowledge the com-
plexity of the eponymous heroine and the conflation of the conflicting
needs and fears she struggles with as they are represented in the novel,
but it even sells short the ambitious density of his own film and the
semiotic ambiguity of its score. Wright’s insistence on the importance
of corporeal desire in Tolstoy’s novel, though, does draw attention to
one issue of the story that the writer himself was conflicted about as he
tried to strike a balance between compassion for Anna’s humanity and
the moral rigour of his own beliefs.
Tolstoy makes it clear that at his time, when all ‘the laws were made
for and by husbands and fathers’, there weren’t that many or even
any options for a woman stuck in a loveless marriage who craved a
fulfilling relationship. However, while he condemns the hypocrisy of
an aristocratic society which condones immoral behaviour as long as
it is suitably discreet, he cannot refrain from qualifying Anna’s and
Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina 161

Vronsky’s decisions to follow their desires as a mistake. The idea of the

mistake is, of course, an essential ingredient of tragedy since its birth,
and is explained by Aristotle through his notion of hamartia – a mistaken
choice which sets off the suffering of the characters (Greenwood, 1999,
p. xi). Still, it is impossible not to detect an air of moral judgment in the
fact that Anna’s obsession with her love affair and her social decline are
presented in counterpoint to Levin’s idealist pursuits of a pure love and
family life. Tolstoy’s own view on this matter is nowhere more explicit
than in the concluding pages in which Levin, having been tormented
by doubt and a lack of religious zeal for most of the novel, experiences a
sudden epiphany after talking to one of his peasants and declares that a
meaningful life is one of the spirit and ‘serving truth rather than serving
one’s personal needs’ (Tolstoy, 1999, p. 788). This conclusion conforms
with the three principal doctrines of Tolstoyanism – repudiation of sex-
ual pleasure, of violence and of wealth – making Levin’s story not only
a significant narrative counterpart to Anna’s story but also giving it the
function of a ‘moral chorus’ on her fate (Greenwood, 1999, p. xv).
However, while Levin’s epiphany at the end of the book clearly con-
veys Tolstoy’s view on the matter of ‘serving personal needs’, the abstract
nature of the notion of ‘truth’ that is revealed to Levin also raises the
question, is it not possible that Anna saw her love for Vronsky as her
‘truth’ that she had to accept, after unsuccessfully trying to renounce
it for her husband’s and her own son’s sakes? This question is in a way
addressed by Marianelli’s score which allows Anna and Levin to share
the same musical material1 associated with their aspirations towards a
more ‘honest existence’ (Marianelli in Macaulay, 2012), the escape into
a ‘life away from the stage’ (Marianelli in Mermelstein, 2012). Delicate
in sound and elevated to a high register in the strings (also reminiscent
of the material that Marianelli wrote for Jane Eyre, 2011) this theme most
obviously reflects Levin’s world in the countryside uncorrupted by the
pretence of high society, but also his high ideals and the purity of his
love for Kitty. This is made particularly obvious in the scene at dawn
when, after spending the whole day mowing with the peasants, Levin
catches sight of Kitty travelling in a carriage to visit her sister Dolly in
a nearby village. This is an important moment for Levin as it makes
him realize that despite the humiliation and general despair he felt after
being rejected by Kitty, he is still in love her.
It is interesting, then, that when the same musical material is brought
into connection with Anna’s character it stems from a similar moment
of a chance sighting and exchanged glances that are in Tolstoy’s prose
always invested with both narrative significance and great emotional
162 The Musicality of Narrative Film

effect.2 This is the scene in which Vronsky, just hours after meeting Anna
at the station for the first time, calls at Oblonsky’s house with the pre-
tence of enquiring about the dinner the next day. As Anna catches a
glimpse of him, a ‘strange feeling of pleasure mixed with fear suddenly
stirred in her heart’ (Tolstoy, 1999, p. 74). The implicit connotation of
having these two scenes connected with the same musical material is
that Anna and Levin each desire a different existence and that in both
cases love is the path of escape and truth. This reading is supported by
the fact that the same motif of a solo violin in a high register appears
briefly in the second notable exterior shot of the film showing Anna
and Vronsky in the early stages of their affair, lying on the grass, in
the sun, exchanging love vows.3 The fact that the lovers are granted
one ‘moment in the sun’ – however brief – accompanied by the theme
predominantly associated with Levin’s lofty aspirations allows us to see
their affair as indeed a ‘more honest’ way of life, away from the stage.
Thus, one could argue that not only does the literary source dispute
Wright’s cursory labelling of Anna’s obsession with Vronsky as sim-
ply ‘lust’ but also the film itself, through imaginative mise-en-scène and
subtle scoring, encourages more nuanced interpretations of the protag-
onists’ motives that acknowledge the complexity of human nature and
the mystery of desire.

Opposites, gaps and the porous borders between them

The overture-like opening of Anna Karenina, which establishes theatre

as the main setting of the story and presents the households of the
Oblonskys and the Karenins, introduces at the beginning some of the
main devices that constitute the film’s idiosyncratic style, including:
highly stylized and choreographed mise-en-scène; camera constantly on
the move through continually changing scenery; and seamless edit-
ing and foregrounding of Marianelli’s score. Wright’s flair for exploring
the musicality of film movement and rhythm through editing and by
staging long complicated shots was clearly intimated in Atonement but
confined to individual sequences surrounded by more conventional
modes of storytelling. Atonement also indicated Wright’s fascination
with narrative realms with porous borders between diegetic and non-
diegetic: according to Marianelli (Mera, 2010), it was at Wright’s request
that the clicking of Briony’s typewriter was used as the motif of the film’s
opening theme while motifs from the non-diegetic score kept surfac-
ing in the diegesis. However, while this method intelligently reflected
Atonement’s themes of creativity, imagination and the fact that in the
Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina 163

protagonist’s mind they sometimes dangerously merge with reality, it

did not challenge the basic postulates of classical narrative procedures.
In Anna Karenina, however, the rules of classical narration are fully
abandoned, giving way to a style which insists on balancing the specta-
tor’s involvement in the story with full exposure of the narrative devices.
Wright uses strategies that are in theory known as ‘distancing’, by con-
stantly reminding us that we are watching a cinematic construct, and at
the same time invites us to care about the characters by employing those
same strategies throughout the film to reinforce the characters’ subjec-
tive point of view. As the rules of classical narration are fully abandoned,
so is the border between diegetic and non-diegetic rendered purpose-
less, almost erased by being frequently crossed by sound effects, musical
themes and actual appearances of the ‘pit musicians’ on the stage.
This approach is exemplified in the combined use of diegetic sounds
and music for bridging temporally and/or spatially remote scenes, which
is among the conventional devices of ellipsis, but in Anna Karenina an
effort is made to musicalize diegetic sounds so that they can be incor-
porated into the score, as was done with the sound of the typewriter for
Briony’s theme or an umbrella hitting the top of a car in the scene of
Robby’s arrest in Atonement. An example of the score absorbing rhyth-
micized diegetic sounds at both ends of an ellipsis is provided by the
audio-visual joint which connects the end of the scene of Anna on the
train with the scene showing Oblonsky at work, walking briskly through
a room full of clerks (0.06.30–0.06.33).4 The end of the former is joined
to the latter through the rumble of the train engine fading out into
the rhythm of the incoming musical theme with a percussive opening
motif. As it turns out, this theme is drawn from another stylized Foley:
the amplified sounds of clerks stamping papers in unison, the rhythmic
pattern of thumping in 4/4 metre repeatedly punctuated by the swishing
noise of the stamped papers being lifted in the air in a choreographically
exaggerated gesture and then put back on the table. A similar merging
of diegetic sounds and music also happens in the mowing scenes, with
swishing of the scythes rhythmicized to conform to the rhythm of the
musical cue (1.06.20–1.06.40 and 1.53.50–1.54.30). In Atonement, the
merging of diegetic sound and non-diegetic score had a specific narra-
tive purpose alluding to the blurred lines between fantasy and reality in
Briony’s mind and by extension to the film’s (and Ian McEwan’s novel’s)
larger themes of creativity, imagination and the moral responsibility of
fiction. The collapse of the border between diegetic and non-diegetic in
Anna Karenina has polyvalent functions as well: on one hand it con-
forms with and facilitates its self-reflexive ethos, reminding us that we
164 The Musicality of Narrative Film

are watching a cinematic construct, and on the other hand it is one of

the film’s primary devices employed to secure the intertwining of the
sonic and visual realms and their incessant flow.
One of the most unusual things about Anna Karenina, though, is that
its exposure of the cinematic codes of construction is conveyed through
a theatrical metaphor by setting most of the narrative diegetic realm
within a rundown theatre and by substituting the display of familiar
symbols of cinema reflexivity (camera, dolly tracks, cranes, lights and
microphones) with theatrical ones (backstage rigging system, scaffolds,
curtains and flat-screens). The move was inspired by the writings of the
Soviet avant-garde theatre director Vsevold Meyerhold, who believed
that ‘stylization is really about subtraction rather than decoration . . . the
idea is to take away the surface to try to reach the essence’ (Wright
quoted in Rafferty, 2012). Wright’s stylization effectively emphasizes the
claustrophobic nature of an aristocratic society which is concerned pri-
marily with appearance and maintaining unwritten rules of conduct
among the privileged. Levin’s character is presented in opposition to
the hypocritical, stuffy world of ‘Society’, his position as an outsider
deftly underlined in the scene in which, after being rejected by Kitty,
he leaves Moscow and, as the gates of the old theatre part in front of
him, is greeted by the blinding whiteness of snow and blazing sunshine
in one of the film’s few exterior shots. The contrast not only dramati-
cally emphasizes the claustrophobic nature of the society Anna belongs
to but also indicates the purity of the country life in which Levin’s con-
fusion is allowed ‘to clear away and his shame and self-dissatisfaction
to pass’ (Tolstoy, 1999, p. 90). This disparity between the two ways of
life characterized by different values and aspirations is also underlined
in the score: the world of aristocracy living ‘on the stage’ is epitomized
by Western orchestral music typical of the 19th-century ballroom, while
its ‘country’ counterpart is represented by folk-sounding material based
on the famous Russian tune ‘Little Birch Tree’.
At the same time, the theatrical metaphor can also be understood as
a conscious nod to the fact that many self-reflexive devices used in this
film, which might seem innovative in cinematic terms, appropriate and
evoke practices of ‘total theatre’ applied by groups such as Complicite,
DV8 and Frantic Assembly. Contemporary theatre is by nature uncon-
cerned with the idea of invisible apparatus and is thus not burdened
by the same expectations that cinema traditionally has to deal with,
and yet no-one is disputing its ability to create an immersive narrative
space or characters that audiences care for. Moreover, the fluidity with
which Wright moves between different narrative spaces by using sound
Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina 165

bridges, music, mobile flat screens, changes of light and costume, or

transforms those spaces by enabling the metamorphosis of props and
actors in front of the audience’s eyes are more than evocative of tech-
niques applied in Complicite productions directed by Simon McBurney.
What is interesting, though, is that both in Wright’s film and Complicite
productions the primary inspiration and model for their unprecedented
visual virtuosity is always music.

Flowing movement, morphing desires

One of the reasons that principles of flow and morphing domi-

nate Wright’s adaptation is the fact that the actors’ movements, not
just the dances, were fully choreographed. This ‘ballet with words’,
as Wright (quoted in Kourlas, 2012) calls his adaptation, was con-
ceived during pre-production in an intense creative triangle between
Wright, Marianelli and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Accord-
ing to Wright, ‘There’s very little room with words to project your
own imagination . . . so there’s something magical or poetic about phys-
ical performance . . . almost mystical.’ However, while choreographed
mise-en-scène constitutes a major point of departure from the genre of
based-on-a-novel period drama into stylized adaptation, it is in many
ways relatable to the literary source which takes place at a time when
the ballroom was a significant Society location, a site of communal
entertainment, matchmaking and intrigue.
Both in the novel and in the film one of the first turning points
in the narrative happens at the Moscow ball attended by most of the
main characters, the place in which Vronsky’s and Anna’s enchantment
with each other breaks Kitty’s heart and sets Anna on her journey of
self-discovery with fatal consequences. This is probably the reason why
the waltz was the first musical idea that inspired Marianelli, who felt
that ‘most of the score . . . should be waltzing, one way or another’, as
it fit with his idea of ‘Anna spiralling faster and faster towards her end,
dancing herself into the path of a train’ (Scott Macaulay, 2012). While
Marianelli’s inspiration was partly influenced by Wright’s original idea
to adapt Anna Karenina as a ‘ballet with words’, his comment suggests
that his choice of a dance not only conformed to the expectations of
the period setting but was additionally influenced by the long history
of the waltz’s symbolic associations with attraction, sexuality, and even
death, as confirmed later in the film. It is worth looking at the ball
scene in detail as this example illustrates how tightly interwoven all the
elements of the musically conceived texture are, from the score itself,
166 The Musicality of Narrative Film

to choreography, the movement of the camera and framing, editing,

lighting, and the use of sound effects.
The two waltzes heard during the ball constitute the sources of the
main musical themes that dominate the film. The first waltz starts at
the beginning of the scene, as Kitty happily glides into the ballroom
expecting to meet Vronsky there, hoping that he will propose to her that
night (0.24.28). Its elegant melody in E minor is based on a descending
sequence of repeated sixths in the violins. The second phrase of section
A reverses the direction of melodic movement, ascending to higher reg-
isters and culminating in a symbolic gesture of ‘yearning’ embodied in a
repeated octave leap from E2 to E3. Section B accompanies Kitty’s dance
with the Master of Ceremonies and Anna’s arrival with her brother
Oblonsky (0.25.19–0.26.10) while the reprise of section A starts at the
moment when Anna, in an attempt to avoid Vronsky, escapes into the
dance with her brother (0.26.11). As the camera lingers on Vronsky’s face
while he stares at the dancing couple, ignoring Kitty, we can hear the
‘yearning’ octave leap in woodwinds intertwined with the first phrase
of section A, leaving us in no doubt about the real object of Vronsky’s
The second waltz in D minor I’ll call ‘chromatic’5 because of its recog-
nizable motif that is heard both at the beginning and at the end of the
first musical phrase (Bb-A-G#-A). The replacement of a stable cadence at
the end of the phrase with the chromatic motif circling around either
the tonic or dominant, often in ritardando, is a signature musical ges-
ture of this waltz. This concluding ‘spiral’ motif is also a potent musical
symbol of desire in the film but is somehow perceived as more ‘carnal’
than the repeated octave leap from the first waltz, its ‘unfinished’ end-
ing evocative of all those compulsive and destructive yearnings which
haunt the protagonists.
At first, the waltz is presented in a fast tempo as Kitty, distressed
by Vronsky’s indifferent behaviour, tries to hide her humiliation and
despair by dancing with her young suitor Boris (0.27.28). Section B of
the waltz accompanies a short conversation between Anna and Vronsky,
ending in her agreeing to dance with him ‘for Kitty’s sake’, which
gives a cue for the beginning of the reprise of section A (0.28.29). The
rhythm in the reprise is augmented, though, reflecting the change in the
atmosphere from elegant breeziness to a more serious mood thick with
excitement and sexual tension. The significance of this moment is fur-
ther emphasized by the first notable use of stylistic highlighting which
effectively freezes all the other dancers in mid-movement so that dur-
ing the first few bars of the reprise Anna and Vronsky are the only two
Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina 167

people moving in the frame. This scene also beautifully exemplifies the
intertwining of the stylistic methods of flow, morphing and highlight-
ing: before the four-bar phrase is finished, the principle of flow takes
over and the choreography changes so that sections of the previously
static crowd on the left-hand side of the frame become alive again when
passed by the couple, while those on the right-hand side and at the fore
of the frame remain static, keeping the focus on the protagonists.
The next phrase of highlighting is introduced towards the end of the
reprise of section A (0.29.10) which instead of a cadence ends with a rep-
etition of the ‘spiral’ motif in a solo violin, accompanying the moment
when Vronsky lifts Anna and twirls her around, only her torso in the
frame, the sound of her gasp suddenly challenging the dominance of the
music. When Anna touches the floor, the mise-en-scène changes again to
emphasize the subjective experience of the protagonists, showing them
in a completely empty room. The cue is obviously taken from the novel
which says that ‘they felt as if they were alone in that crowded ball-
room’ (Tolstoy, 1999, p. 81), but in the context of the whole dance this
moment is weighted with particular significance through a combination
of audio-visual devices: as the delayed cadence in the violin morphs into
a solo, playing the first phrase of the waltz an octave higher, the absorp-
tion of the couple with each other is further underlined by the dimming
of all the lights in the room except a single spotlight above them. This
shot, rounded off with a repetition of the spiral motif, is positioned as a
dramatic and emotional downbeat to the whole scene which effectively
halts the narrative and musical development to emphasize the power of
attraction that make Anna and Vronsky oblivious to their environment.
As the waltz continues and the music gains momentum again, mark-
ing a return to reality, the orchestral score begins to be punctuated by
rhythmicized diegetic sounds – snippets of conversation, the swishing of
the ball gowns, the feet of the dancers touching the ground and Kitty’s
heavy breathing – that gradually start to perforate Anna and Vronsky’s
bubble of seclusion. The ‘spiralling effect’ mentioned by Marianelli is
here captured by the waltz appearing in its wildest, most seductive form,
the theme handed to the woodwind instruments, the strings escaping
into a buzz of thickly layered variations on the opening motif, the per-
petual movement of spinning and whirling evoking the dance’s darkest
overtones of irrepressible, unstoppable and often destructive forces asso-
ciated with desire, the search for pleasure or death. The acceleration of
the spinning is reinforced by the use of whip pans and increasingly rapid
editing, juxtaposing images of Anna and Vronsky lost in the dance with
shots of Kitty’s distressed glances at the couple and the accusatory looks
168 The Musicality of Narrative Film

Figure 9.1 Anna Karenina confronted with the distorted image of her face in a
ballroom mirror (Anna Karenina, Joe Wright, 2012)

of other guests directed at them. The swirl of the fatal waltz is finally
halted by Kitty breaking away from her partner, her stare waking Anna
from the spell. The moment is accompanied by a foreboding theme in
the brass that invades the waltz, leading it towards a dramatic finale.
As Anna turns away from the dance floor she is confronted with the dis-
torted image of her face in the ballroom mirror (Figure 9.1). Soon the
reflection of the dancers behind her disappears in the steam of a quickly
approaching train; the repetition of the final chromatic motif G sharp-
A in the violins morphs into the sound of the train wheels in motion,
the train which will in the next scene take Anna back to her husband in
St. Petersburg.
The themes from both waltzes can be heard in the overture and
reappear many times throughout the film, but are never associated
exclusively with one character. The first time we hear the opening phrase
from the ‘chromatic’ waltz, it is presented during the overture in a folk-
like arrangement for brass instruments with Stiva Oblonsky on stage.
Considering that we are introduced to the Oblonsky household at the
moment when Stiva’s wife Dolly discovers that her husband has been
cheating on her with the children’s nanny, this supports the association
of the second waltz with the notion of erotic desire. The introduction
of Anna’s character during the overture is accompanied by the second
phrase of the same waltz, this time in the strings, ending with the spi-
ral motif ritardando in the violins and followed by a fermata, as heard
in the ball scene. The waltz based on the theme with repeated sixths
Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina 169

is introduced in the overture in a solo violin, accompanying the image

of Oblonsky’s wife Dolly crying. This flexibility in the presentation of
the main musical themes in terms of their arrangement and associa-
tions with different characters is indicative of Marianelli’s reluctance to
assign any of the themes to specific characters:

There are several themes in the score of Anna Karenina: sometimes

appearing alone, often intersecting, their paths running alongside
for a while. Those paths are shared by the characters in the story
as they walk towards or away from convention, pretence, happiness,
guilt, love, fun, and even truth. In a very important sense, the musical
motifs do not represent the characters themselves – I prefer to think
of them as spirits, perhaps demons, unseen, signposting the way, or
simply bearing witness to the events.
(Marianelli, 2012)

On the basis of its use in the film, the chromatic waltz associated with
the notion of erotic desire seems to be the force behind all the fatal
decisions made by the protagonists, but the interpretative ambiguity
encouraged by the semiotic flexibility of the score also indicates that
the desires, virtues and weaknesses symbolized by its main themes are
shared by different characters, regardless of their social background,
marital status or religious beliefs. At the same time, the flexibility of
the musical material, which refuses to stay attached to a single character
or theme, also corresponds perfectly to the ideas of morphing and flow
that permeate the film’s other spheres of expression, transforming paper
into snowflakes, toy trains into real trains and the flutter of hand fans
into horses galloping.
Cherkaoui’s choreography not only provides fluency and elegance to
the film’s continuous movement but also conveys the essence of the
protagonists’ emotional profiles and their responses to the pull of con-
flicting desires. The choreographed psychological and class profiling is
particularly notable in the depiction of Vronsky’s character which, hav-
ing been given relatively few significant speaking scenes, relies on body
language and posture to convey the charisma that attracts Anna and
also to suggest his innate superficiality. Vronsky is also the only char-
acter that both physically and psychologically somewhat contradicts its
literary model, because Tolstoy depicts him as good-natured, simple and
elegant (Tolstoy, 1999, p. 50), at ease with people from different levels
of society, while Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s portrayal situates him firmly,
at least at the beginning, within the conventions and mannerisms of
170 The Musicality of Narrative Film

high society. Only after becoming Anna’s lover and making sacrifices by
abandoning his military career is Vronsky allowed to shed the postural
signifiers of class and reveal a human being underneath.
The choreography also addresses the question of class by emphasizing
the interdependent relationships between masters and servants, their
exchanges practiced for generations and taken for granted by both sides
so that the privileged are always surrounded by hands ready to serve
them, dress them, undress them or even catch the ashes from a burn-
ing cigarette. Most consistently, though, the stylized, choreographed
movement outside of the ballroom is used to expose the artificiality and
hypocrisy of the high society Anna belongs to, a society which permits
and even encourages extra-marital affairs as long as they are not taken
too seriously. A striking example of this approach can be seen in the
scene depicting the soirée organized by Vronsky’s cousin Princess Betsy,
where soon-to-be-lovers meet and flirt.
The theatrical, ‘feigned’ nature of these kinds of gatherings and the
interpersonal relationships they breed is emphasized from the very start
by using the ending of the previous scene – which takes place in a
‘real’ theatre – as the introduction for the soirée scene, so that all the
theatrical symbols indicating that the show is about to start – the con-
ductor instructing the orchestra to start the overture, the stage curtain
rising – lead us straight into Princess Betsy’s salon. The scene starts with
a memorable tableau of the guests – gents and dames of high society –
caught mid-action, their backs arched so low that some of the bodies
seem headless. The use of choreography also means that the movement
is always structured around the musical content which itself follows the
formation of classical 4 + 4 + 8 phrasing. In the first part of the scene,
though, not only the movement of the dancers and actors but also other
aspects of the mise-en-scène are choreographed and shaped around the
music. The action unfolds in short rhythmic segments as if staged to
the pulse of a ticking metronome, the conversation between the ladies
and between Betsy and Vronsky punctuated by choreographed gestures,
collective artificial sighs and laughter, rhythmic fluttering of hand fans
and lifting of the chandeliers, all coinciding with the ends of musical
Despite the air of exaggerated artificiality in the mise-en-scène, though,
the scene is infused with an air of unease thanks to the music. The chro-
matic waltz which opens the scene appears in a slow tempo in the cellos
alone, their low register and dramatic introduction indicating that we
are about to witness another turning point in Anna’s and Vronsky’s
relationship, a move from what their friends have considered harmless
Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina 171

flirting to a more serious, consuming passion with tragic consequences.

At one moment, Anna, believing that she has missed Vronsky because
she was late, looks up at the night sky through a hole in the ceiling and,
even though we know Vronsky is at that moment in a carriage driv-
ing away from Betsy’s place, the next moment she is startled from her
reverie first by his voice and then by his actual presence. The shot of a
starry sky that both of them gaze at becomes the bridge for one of the
numerous ellipses that mark the film’s commitment to incessant flow
and morphing, which will be explored in the following section.

Nuts, bolts and invisible joints

As a number of previously discussed scenes suggest, the principles

of flow and morphing inherent to music and dance do not concern
only the choreographed mise-en-scène and Marianelli’s score for Wright’s
adaptation of Anna Karenina but also extend to other sonic and visual
aspects of the film including the distinctively smooth and mobile cam-
era work of Seamus McGarvey, Melanie Ann Oliver’s seamless editing
and an elaborate set of procedures from both production and post-
production designed to secure the musical flow of the narrative. These
procedures are particularly prominent in the first quarter of the film
which introduces different characters and locations in a swirl of mobile
sets and props, change of costumes, incessant camera movement, chore-
ography and a series of visual and sonic bridges. A good example of how
complexly interwoven and meticulously planned these procedures are
can be found in the scene where Levin comes to see Oblonsky, eager
to discuss his intention to propose to Kitty, Oblonsky’s sister-in-law.
After a short conversation in Oblonsky’s office, the two of them agree
to meet for lunch, which kicks off an elaborately planned and executed
minute-and-a-half-long single shot (0.08.04–0.09.28).
The auditorium below the stage where the scene begins stands for
Oblonsky’s workplace crammed with desks and uniformed clerks, but
during a slow camera pan the same space is ‘transformed’ through chore-
ography, change of costumes, props and mobile flat-screens first into
a Moscow street and then into a restaurant. The action is, of course,
immaculately combined with music, indicating the existence of tight
collaborative processes between different departments in the execution
of the scene. The first few seconds of the shot have a clearly introductory
function, with Oblonsky’s and Levin’s exit from the office accompanied
only by a rhythmicized repetition of a single accordion chord. Following
their departure, the sound of a gong and a whistle mark the end of the
172 The Musicality of Narrative Film

working day in Oblonsky’s office, prompting the beginning of the musi-

cal folk theme and a series of scenery and costume changes in front of
the camera, evoking the buzz of a busy street, including another appear-
ance of Levin lost in the ‘streets of Moscow’, asking for directions to the
restaurant. The scene ends abruptly with a musical fermata in accordion
accentuating the moment when the convoluted journey of the waiter
carrying an ashtray ends up beside Oblonsky just in time to catch the
ash from his cigar, Oblonsky’s words ‘It’s so unfair!’ providing the final
full stop to the prolonged, head-spinningly virtuosic shot.
The complexity and length of this take bring to mind Wright’s and
McGarvey’s previous meticulously staged single tour-de-force shot from
Atonement, the scene on the Dunkirk beach which, with similar virtu-
osity, captures both the chaos and the emotional charge of the French
harbour on the eve of the Allied soldiers’ evacuation. The tone of Anna
Karenina’s scene is much lighter, though, set by the playful version of
the folk theme performed by female voice, brass, accordion and clar-
inet with the musicians casually wandering in front of the camera.
Also, unlike the contrapuntal linearity of the Dunkirk scene which accu-
mulates its affective impact by gradually revealing the vastness of the
space and by combining different narrative and musical lines, the Anna
Karenina scene is executed in a prolonged 360-degree-pan of the cam-
era within the same auditorium, prompting a swift metamorphosis of
the existing costumes, props and flat-screens, deliberately exposing the
inner workings of the well-oiled machinery which usually take place
behind the curtain or the camera. The uninterrupted movement that
dominates this scene and each of the elements involved in the complex
mise-en-scène establishes flow as the governing principle of audio-visual
presentation, which is given priority over any other narrative concern.
Besides the long, mobile, musically devised shots that maintain the
sense of fluid movement within uninterrupted takes, a sense of unforced
flow is also created using various editing strategies. One of the most
prominent is an ellipsis which is implemented through the application
of sonic or concealed visual bridges, or both combined, as described in
the example of the scene in Princess Betsy’s salon. These seams often
involve a certain type of morphing, which is again executed using both
visual and aural devices. Thus, for instance, an image of a toy train trav-
elling through a snowy landscape in the room of Anna’s son becomes a
bridge to the scene of Anna on a real train, the morphing process facil-
itated primarily through sound which discreetly alters from the thin
sound of a toy to the deeper rumble of a real train engine in motion
Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina 173

One of many musical gestures applied in this film which put the exis-
tence of an overarching concept of musicalization beyond any doubt
is the musical use of diegetic sound effects in combination not with
the score but rather with speech. The reason for this conclusion is that
this approach not only demands collaboration between different sound
departments in post-production but also, even more so, it breaks down
the familiar hierarchy of film sound elements, treating sound effects as
narratively significant as speech, and speech as musically functional as
sound effects. The familiar audio-visual motif of paper stamping dis-
cussed previously also appears in one of these cases (1.11.48–1.12.00),
only this time without music. The motif is again rhythmicized, its pat-
tern slightly extended to include the rhythmic squeaking of the chairs
produced by the choreographed movement of the clerks standing up
and sitting down. As in the scene where Oblonsky and Levin meet
for lunch and a prolonged musical shot is concluded with Oblonsky’s
exclamation ‘It’s not fair’, so the motif of stamping here ends with the
appearance of Levin saying to Oblonsky: ‘I need your advice.’ While
in these two examples speech exclamations act as cadences for audio-
visual phrases, in other cases diegetic sound effects are used as cadences
for speech, as when Anna admits to her husband that she’s having an
affair with Vronsky. Her words ‘I love him. I am his mistress. Do what
you like to me,’ are accentuated by the abrupt halt of the carriage they
are travelling in and a startling thump, the noise considerably amplified
and symbolically more evocative of a sound which could be associated
with a broken axle or a wheel falling off than with a carriage coming
quickly to rest.
One of the results of the wide and imaginative employment of the
principles of flow and morphing across the film is the abolishment of
the familiar ‘division of labour’ between the sonic and visual aspects of
narration. Consequently, as speech or diegetic effects can be incorpo-
rated into the score or applied as cadential endings so static images can
take on the function of dramatic accents, as mentioned in the examples
of stylistic highlighting through the use of tableau-type scene blocking
and choreography. An interesting type of audio-visual counterpoint pro-
duced by combining this type of stylistic highlighting with music can be
found in the scene in the opera where Anna, after leaving her husband
for good and settling down with Vronsky, experiences open rejection
from what used to be her circle of society. When Madam Kartasova
makes a scene because her husband dares to speak to Anna, express-
ing loudly what others have only been whispering, the camera fixes on
Anna’s face frozen in pain and humiliation and then retreats slowly to
174 The Musicality of Narrative Film

reveal her sitting at the centre of a tableau surrounded by the motionless

crowd staring at her (1.41.25–1.41.42). The backtracking of the camera
is accompanied by an elegiac melody in violin, but the accentuation
in the visual content is reflected in a microtonal dyad around E-flat
floating above the melody in a higher register. The audio-visual counter-
point is thus presented through symmetrical distribution of visual and
sonic devices working in pairs, the movement of the camera reflected
in an unfolding melody while the hurt of social rejection and humilia-
tion condensed into a static tableau is paired with an equally piercing
musical dissonance.
All these strategies that facilitate musical flow in a montage or within
a single shot, and the morphing of images and sounds, are instigated by
the narrative and are usually in the service of conveying a character’s
point of view or producing an affective accent. One of the most memo-
rable moments involving visual morphing is the one in which Karenin,
while in Moscow on a business trip, receives a message from the heav-
ily pregnant Anna: ‘I beg you to come. I need your forgiveness. I am
dying.’ Convinced it is one of Anna’s cunning tricks to prevent his deci-
sion to divorce her and take away her son, he tears the message up and
angrily throws the pieces of paper up into the air. The pieces of paper
come back down in the shape of giant snowflakes and by the time the
camera has finished its slow retreat from a close-up to a long shot reveal-
ing an empty stage with a painted backdrop of the city behind Karenin,
the whole frame is covered with falling snow. The moment is not only
surreally poetic but also indicative of a significant change about to take
place in the lives of all the characters, the moment in which Karenin’s
transformation into a forgiving husband prompts devastating feelings
of guilt in the lovers and a wave of sympathy for a previously despised
character. The scene concludes with the sound of church bells tolling
in the distance, symbolically marking Karenin’s imminent redemption
and Anna’s eventual demise.

The powers of fate

Although Anna is described by different characters in the book as ‘fallen,

bad and depraved’, and she even calls herself that, Tolstoy presents her
position and character in such a way that her situation seems doomed
whichever choice she makes: she can choose either self-deprivation
and decide to stay in a loveless marriage or she can commit a moral
and social crime by first cheating on her husband and then deserting
him and her son. Her situation seems to reflect the words of Tolstoy’s
Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina 175

favourite philosopher Schopenhauer when he says in The World as

Will and Representation: ‘We see the greatest suffering brought about
by entanglements whose essence could be assumed even by our own
fate, and by actions that perhaps even we might be capable of com-
mitting . . . ’ (quoted in Greenwood, 1999, p. xii). The idea of fate as the
cause of the hopelessness of Anna’s situation looms particularly large in
Wright’s adaptation of the novel and is most notably embodied in the
recurring motif of the train which dominates the film in various audio-
visual guises, slipping in and out of both the sonic and visual realms
as an ominous symbol of approaching doom. The same idea is also
firmly entangled in the score which, by referencing the Tchaikovskian
style, inevitably brings to mind that Russian composer’s own notions
of fate as ‘that fateful force’ which ‘hangs overhead like the sword of
The first meeting of Anna and Vronsky occurs at a train station, where
Anna witnesses the accidental death of a train watchman, which not
only intimates the place and manner of her own ending but symboli-
cally frames her meeting with Vronsky as one of fate and bad fortune.
In fact, the moment of the accident coincides, or rather directly follows
the moment when Vronsky takes and kisses Anna’s hand for the first
time, as if the fatal jolt of the wagon that kills the watchman, accen-
tuated by a loud thump and followed by the screeching of the train
wheels and women screaming, was triggered by the kiss. Wright fur-
ther develops this idea by making the audio-visual motif of the train
wheels in motion one of the most prominent in the film, an audio-
visual ‘engine of inevitability’, moving steadily and inexorably towards
a tragic ending.
The idea of fatality and its association with the sound and image of
a train is unmistakably confirmed in the scene where Vronsky tries to
comfort Anna after her humiliation in the opera by making love to
her (1.43.15). The scene starts with a close-up of Anna’s head moving
rhythmically in slow-motion under Vronsky, the image bathed in dark
nuances of blue, the visual focus changing from Anna’s face to the bot-
tle of morphine lying on the table. But while the visual suggestions of
Anna’s growing addiction and the lovers’ gradual alienation are omi-
nous in themselves, the most disturbing aspect of the scene comes from
the synchronization of the movement of Vronsky’s body in a sexual
act with the sound of a train which grows louder and heavier until the
image of the lovers is completely wiped out and replaced by the famil-
iar image of train wheels in motion, taking our heroine towards her
inevitable end.
176 The Musicality of Narrative Film

The motif of fate is particularly strongly emphasized by using the

devices of flow, morphing and stylistic highlighting in Anna’s final train
journey, just before she decides to take her own life. The scene begins
with Anna getting dressed to go out after a quarrel with Vronsky, the
sound of the bell from the train station ringing throughout the scene in
juxtaposition with the rhythm of the theme from the chromatic waltz.
Anna’s actions are punctuated by the exaggerated diegetic sounds of her
garments falling to the floor, the heavy drapery of her dress swishing
with the force of a wave hitting a rock, although the Foley accompa-
nying this image is actually one of the train engine starting off. The
continuous ringing of the bell consistently out of rhythm with the
movement of the music not only alerts us to the fact that Anna is in
conflict with Vronsky, their feelings of love and respect for each other
and even with herself, but it also feels as if it is counting down her last
The visual morphing is exemplified in the seamless transition from
the interior of the house to Anna on the train, the smoothness of the
cross-fading aided by the background blur of dark nuances of blue, the
colour associated with Anna’s morphine addiction. As the distraught
Anna steps out of the train, all the other passengers are frozen in a
striking tableau, as if time has stopped. As it was explained earlier, this
type of stylistic highlighting is applied throughout the film, usually in
scenes which emphasize Anna’s point of view in a highly excited or
agitated state, as in the scene of Anna’s humiliation at the opera or at
the horse race when, worrying that Vronsky has been hurt, she publicly
reveals her feelings for him. Unlike in the scene at the opera, though, the
final tableau at the train station is not accompanied by music at all, but
rather the muffled hum of rumbling and hissing noises coming some-
where beyond the cocoon of emotional pain that isolates Anna from
her surroundings. The image of passengers at the train station caught
mid-action is more memorable than any other tableau in the film as it
extends from a single shot in the train carriage to include a series of
shots following Anna’s final walk through the immobile crowd spread
across the maze of the backstage platforms, ropes and pulleys. Prolonged
train hoots bookend this segment of suspended temporal, sonic and
kinetic flow, first by marking – literally and symbolically – the end of
Anna’s journey and the moment she steps on the platform, and then
later breaking her tortured reverie by alerting her to the arrival of the
train that she will throw herself under.
Considering the combination of striking audio-visual devices
involved in conveying the subjective experience of a character in the
Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina 177

midst of emotional breakdown, it is disappointing that the one element

that breaks the spell through jarringly conventional means is the music
itself. When Anna sits on a bench on the platform, the camera zooming
in on her distraught face, we hear the second phrase of the first waltz
with its repeated ‘octave leap of yearning’ on a violin. It is worth noting
here the switch from the chromatic theme which normally accompa-
nies Anna’s character to the theme of the first waltz, a subtle indication
that the pain driving her to the fatal decision runs deeper than the
disappointment over her relationship with Vronsky. While the theme,
presented in overtly romantic guise and in combination with the image
of Anna’s teary face, fully conforms to the conventions of classical
scoring, obligingly playing its role of an emotional amplifier, the senti-
mental bar of the scene is raised even higher in the next moment when
Anna, startled by the hoot of the approaching train, rises from the bench
while the same theme is repeated by the whole string section, now trans-
posed from A minor to E minor. On one hand, this gesture is in concord
with the essentially Romantic ethos of the score and the expectations
associated with a period drama; on the other, since all other aspects of
the film’s vocabulary not only challenge but often subvert the rules of
the genre, this final concession to classical scoring conventions seems
oddly anachronistic.
Scoring conventions notwithstanding, this scene, like most others
in Anna Karenina, confirms that, while introducing the concept of
musicality into the filmmaking process is inevitably the consequence of
an authorial vision, bringing this vision to life demands an intense col-
laborative process and the utilization of numerous visual and musical
devices. The complexity of the audio-visual texture – from the chore-
ographed mise-en-scène, seamless editing and foregrounded music to
small visual and sonic details creating musical cadences and ellipses –
makes it clear that the level of elaborate preplanning involving different
departments and their combined efforts in achieving audio-visual flow
cannot be overestimated.
The notion of flow in this film is closely connected with the con-
cept of morphing, which also permeates the film on different levels
of narration and audio-visual design, including the semiotic flexibil-
ity of the film’s musical themes, the multifunctional nature of the
props and scenery and the interchangeability of speech and sound
effects in providing cadential endings to scenes conceived as musi-
cal phrases. This approach not only undermines the familiar hierarchy
established in narration between visual and sonic devices but also the
common roles ascribed to them, resulting in a film in which a complex,
178 The Musicality of Narrative Film

interrogative, philosophical and compassionate exploration of Tolstoy’s

novel is presented with impeccable rhythm and musical fluidity.
Everything that has been said so far makes it clear that Wright’s
reflexive style does not rely on using deliberately disruptive strategies.
Rather, his stylistic virtuosity, subversion of the expectations of classical
narrative and abolishment of boundaries between diegetic and non-
diegetic are actually employed with the intention of illuminating the
subjective perspective of the main characters as described by Tolstoy
himself. Although he explores the boundaries of the medium through
its relationship with contemporary theatre and encourages the specta-
tor’s conscious engagement with the text and the procedures involved
in embodying it on screen, that neither signals nor confirms the rejec-
tion of an immersive form. On the contrary, although Wright counts
on an active, reflexive and critical participant, he goes to great lengths
to make sure that the participant is entertained too. In that sense, in
comparison to the alienating or didactic devices of Brecht and Godard,
Wright’s strategies, while respectful of the essence of the literary source,
are positively hedonistic, as are Tarantino’s or Luhrmann’s, although
without their fervent need to base their texts on communication with
popular culture. Most importantly in this context, what enables the
striking combination of self-consciousness and the immersivity of stylis-
tic hedonism in Wright’s work is the underlying influence of music as an
overseeing principle and a model in both actual and metaphoric terms.

It might be a strange thing to admit in the concluding pages of a book

that argues for recognizing the musical potential of film, but my idea to
explore film musicality initially came from my increasing awareness of
the musicality of contemporary theatre, particularly Complicite produc-
tions directed by Simon McBurney which are governed by a perpetual
fluidity affecting actors, props and all contributing media. It was inter-
esting, then, that when I was preparing to write the last chapter of this
book a film appeared – Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina – which convinc-
ingly and virtuosically integrates the practice of musicalized theatre in
the medium of film. However, it is not only the last case study of this
book that illustrates the importance of cross-fertilization. The other two
case studies and many other films discussed in this book suggest that
exposing film to influences from other arts and media – be that hip
hop, poetry, techno music or the abstract idea of musicality – opens
up a space for innovation and the creation of new modes of percep-
tion that transcend familiar experiences of art consumption. Hip hop
editing, audio-visual musique concrète, examples of rhythmicized form,
musicalized speech and various other stylistic choices and devices are all
created by combining influences from different arts and popular culture
and they all promote boundary-busting qualities typical of art hybridity
and intermedia relationships. I don’t think it is in any way contentious
to claim that interest in hybrid art forms and the quest for sensuous
experiences enabled by diverse multimedia resources is one of the defin-
ing characteristics of contemporary art. What makes these hybrid forms
so exciting is the result of strong cross-disciplinary tendencies and cross-
fertilization between sometimes quite unlikely sources as well as the fact
that music and sound play a vital role in most of those hybrid forms or
in the process of their conception.

180 The Musicality of Narrative Film

In his book Visible Deeds of Music, Simon Shaw-Miller argues that

hybridity seems to be a ‘natural state for art’ (p. 27), at least since the
beginning of the 20th century, when the traditionally favoured idea
of art purity had to abdicate in the face of the strong multi-, inter-
and cross-disciplinary tendencies of modern art.1 What has caused the
discourse about the arts to lag behind the practice is the institutional
structuring of academic departments which, as Shaw-Miller points out,
‘traditionally made it difficult to cross the borders of disciplines . . . The
specialist nature of the separate fields (and discourses) mean that when
discussion does take place, it is usually in terms of already accepted
categories and demarcations formulated in relation to only one of the
disciplines involved,’ (p. 32).
Scholars of film music studies, of course, have been well aware of the
tendency of art departments to ‘collapse art into arenas’ which are ‘eas-
ily demarcated and patrolled’ (Shaw-Miller, 2002, p. 32). The fact that
in the last few decades, during which film music studies have experi-
enced notable development, most scholars found homes in music but
not film departments, might indicate that the field of music studies has
been quicker to accept the ideas of hybridity and its interdisciplinary
methods than film studies, but this is hardly surprising considering that
contemporary music practice has become the epitome of art hybridity,
intermediality and collaboration across disciplines. Traditionally, music
and stage have had an affinity for each other, from the ancient forms
of Greek drama to Wagner’s elaborate concepts of Gesamtkunstwerk, but
recent years have not only witnessed the fervent practice of the the-
atricalization of music and musicalization of theatre as in the hybrid
forms of Heiner Goebbels and Jennifer Walshe, for instance, but also
various other examples of cross-media fertilization and hybridity which
include the habitual use of video in contemporary opera productions,
the integration (or juxtaposition) of live operatic performance with film
(Louis Andriessen’s opera La Commedia (2008) directed by Hal Hartley,
for instance), music composed for interactive media which includes
body movement, animation, live video mixing, and so on.
Film, or rather screen media, which these days includes music videos,
video art, video games, internet and various phone apps, have been an
essential part of this trend. However, faithful to its visually biased stance,
the field of film studies has been quicker to acknowledge the influence
of these new screen media on contemporary film practice than to con-
sider sound and music as vital aspects of film scholarship and criticism,
let alone to entertain the idea of film as a potentially musical medium.
And yet, the influence of music on the changes that film has undergone
Conclusion 181

in the last few decades cannot be ignored. In 2001, when I first started to
explore the idea of film musicality, overt examples of it, while existing
in different practices and traditions, were certainly not an apparent part
of the mainstream. Nowadays, most movie trailers (at least for action
films and spectacles) sound like their creators attended a ‘Requiem for a
Dream sound and image editing workshop’ as part of their basic train-
ing. Metrically regular hits on timpani or taiko drums or electronically
produced percussive strikes punctuate every trailer, while spoofs on and
homages to Aronofsky’s hip hop montage have appeared in a number of
films, from Jonas Åkerlund’s Spun (2002) to Simon Pegg’s comedic takes
on zombie and alien invasion horrors, Shaun of the Dead (2004) and The
World’s End (2013).
At the time of writing this conclusion (summer, 2014) the trend
of applying musical principles to the process of conceiving and pro-
ducing films seems to be stronger than ever, some examples of overt
film musicality, like Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut about
porn-addiction, Don Jon (2013), coming directly from the mainstream.
According to the film’s composer Nathan Johnson, Gordon-Levitt’s idea
from the beginning was to ‘edit the film to music’ (Johnson, 2014),
which accounts for the film’s notable rhythmic pulse on the micro level
in scenes featuring actual music, but does not necessarily explain its
overall sense of musicality. In fact, Don Jon’s narrative is no less pat-
terned than that of Aronofsky’s π , since the life of the film’s eponymous
protagonist also revolves around routines like Max Coen’s does, except
that instead of maths, Don Jon’s interests are focused on watching porn,
keeping his pad clean, going to clubs to pick up girls, making perfunc-
tory weekly confessions after Sunday Mass and then having lunch with
his parents. Also, the way Gordon-Levitt, who also wrote the movie,
represents Don Jon’s obsessive-compulsive behaviour and dependence
on porn in many ways follows the principles of Aronofsky’s hip hop
montage as applied in both π and Requiem for a Dream by using rec-
ognizable images, sounds, musical cues and statements that symbolize
Don Jon’s addictive or routine activities as samples which are then
repeated throughout the film. The most notable difference between
Aronofsky’s and Gordon-Levitt’s approaches to representing addiction
and obsessive-compulsive behaviour is in the fact that Don Jon’s audio-
visual samples involve less elaborate sonic editing, the main sample
consisting of a single sustained ringing sound of a laptop starting up –
an unmistakable symbol of the protagonist’s porn habit. Nevertheless,
the macro-patterns created through the repetition of scenes such as
those of Don Jon dancing with girls in the club accompanied by Son
182 The Musicality of Narrative Film

Lux’s memorable hip hop theme or Don Jon’s self-asserting chants (‘my
body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls, my
porn’) produce a highly rhythmicized form which seems as interested
in delivering the pleasures of a sensualized cinematic experience as in
cautioning about the dangers of online porn addiction and promoting
the idea of a real human relationship.
In the case of a mélomane such as Jim Jarmusch, whose musical
approach to film is usually more apparent in structure than sound
design, it has been interesting to follow the evolution of his meth-
ods from early attempts to incorporate the principles of music and
poetry into film to creating music for his films himself. Looking back at
Jarmusch’s oeuvre 20 years after Dead Man’s release, I don’t think it is an
exaggeration to say that Neil Young’s contribution to this film in many
ways influenced Jarmusch’s subsequent trajectory. Until his collabora-
tion with Young, Jarmusch’s approach to scoring had been cautious and
reserved, undoubtedly due to his open aversion to conventions typi-
cal of the second wave of classical Hollywood scoring that overtook
American cinema in the 1970s. However, the slow-burning, understated
mood of Young’s score for Dead Man not only awoke the film’s affective
undercurrents but the filmmaker’s as well, inspiring Jarmusch to nourish
his musically conceived forms with more actual music. This is evident
in a freer approach to scoring in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and
The Limits of Control but even more in the fact that Jarmusch’s later
film soundtracks began to feature the director’s own music as well. Ini-
tially this materialized in the form of short music cameos by Jarmusch’s
then-band Bad Rabbit for The Limits of Control but appeared more sub-
stantially in his following feature Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), a film in
which the state of the world, art and humanity is viewed through the
eyes of two erudite, sophisticated, art-appreciating lovers who happen to
be vampires. That Jarmusch made one of the vampires a musician is in
no way unusual for his films, but more important are the facts that the
film revels in establishing the acts of listening to or performing music
as central pieces of the narrative and that some of the most effective
parts of the soundtrack were created by Jarmusch’s band, which in the
meantime changed its name from Bad Rabbit to SQÜRL.
At the same time, as demonstrated in Jarmusch’s early films and many
others mentioned in this book, film does not need music to fulfil its
musical potential. After all, the idea of music as a model for film was
born in the silent era and, as if coming full circle, can today be found in
a filmmaking practice which abstains from the use of music in film alto-
gether. Although this practice is often employed as one of the strategies
Conclusion 183

of establishing film as a plural, ‘interrogative’ text, as explained by Elsie

Walker (2010) in her study of Michael Haneke’s films, Haneke himself
has pointed out that his musical abstinence is ‘compensated’ by the
latent musicality of the structure. In other cases the absence of music
can be offset by the musical use of camera movement, image and sound
editing, the movement within a shot or a combination of the afore-
mentioned and other devices. In the context of a mainstream culture
dependent on excessive scoring and blaring demonstrations of the latest
developments in sound technology, musical abstinence can sometimes
be the ultimate gesture of film musicality.
In most cases, though, the musical approach to film’s narrative, visual
and structuring devices is complemented with the use of sound and
music. Not only that, the approach to the film soundtrack itself has
undergone significant changes in the last few decades which can in
many ways be attributed to the conscious application of musical prin-
ciples in film practice.2 The results of this approach can be recognized
in the diminishing distinctions between scoring and sound design and
the increasing recognition of sound as an aspect of film which has a
range of expression similar to music but is less burdened by embedded
expectations and clichéd solutions. Having the potential to fulfil con-
ventional narrative and grammatical as well as subtle expressive roles,
sound has become that aspect of film which not only allows but also
encourages musical approaches that are built into film’s creative pro-
cess from a very early stage. Different forms of musicalization of sound
design include: the emancipation of sound effects into musically effi-
cient and narratively pertinent elements of the film soundtrack as in
Aronofsky’s films; their inclusion in the score as in Joe Wright’s Anna
Karenina; the musical treatment of sound effects in mainstream horror
and action cinema (Donnelly, 2013, 2014; Smith, 2013); the merging of
an orchestral score with sound design as in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the
Skin (2013); and elaborately musicalized soundscapes in which musique
concrète is used as sound design and diegetic sound is treated as musique
concrète as in the films of Gus Van Sant and Peter Strickland (Jordan,
2007; Kulezic-Wilson, 2011b, 2012). Possibly the most striking evidence
of musical influences on film soundtracks can be seen in the fact that
the once undisputed dominance of spoken language has been con-
sistently undermined in recent practice by its musicalization through
the use of repetition, chant-like refrains and antiphony as in Spring
Breakers (Korine, 2012) and Upstream Color (Carruth, 2013), as well as
by the deliberate foregrounding of musical material at the expense of
intelligible speech as in Breathe In (Doremus, 2013).
184 The Musicality of Narrative Film

As the examples discussed in this book illustrate – with all their diver-
sity of intentions, strategies and devices – musicality is a real, powerful
aspect of film latently present in its audio-visual temporal, rhythmic and
kinetic properties. I have emphasized the latent quality of film’s musi-
cal potential, alluding to the evident availability of the aforementioned
properties but also to the fact that they do not have to be and indeed are
not often employed with the attribute of musicality in mind. Neverthe-
less, musicality is an important inspiration and a strong guiding force for
a number of filmmakers who employ music and follow its lead in differ-
ent stages of the filmmaking process; this concept is equally significant
for the audience which is tuned to experiencing film as an audio-visual
rather than visual medium, for film does not fall short of any aesthetic
pleasure available by listening to music – after all, music itself is part
of film.
However, one might still be prompted to ask the question, what is
the main distinction between musical and non-musical film? The answer
is as complex as the answer to what makes film musical in the first
place, which has been explored during the course of this book. The dif-
ference between non-musically and musically conceived films certainly
depends on the level of awareness of the full potential of film’s proper-
ties, the way they are envisioned and employed. However, the musical
approach cannot simply be defined by the use of certain devices and
practices, since they can produce different effects in different contexts,
as the comparison between the Elephant films of Gus Van Sant and Alan
Clarke convincingly shows. It does not solely depend on the type of
music used and its function within a film either, although these are
important elements of the musical approach to film. The answer to this
question involves consideration of the employment of a film’s temporal,
rhythmic and kinetic properties and all the devices that embody them:
the structure of the narrative, the composition of mise-en-scène, the
character of the language employed in the film and its delivery, the com-
position of the diegetic movement, the use of camera, editing, music,
sound, silence, and so on. In short, it involves all the crucial aspects
of film. The complete answer to this question, thus, would epitomize a
fully articulated new aesthetics of film, the existence of which is already
evident in practice. By introducing the concept of film musicality, its
theoretical background and some methodological options for exploring
the dual (comparative/interactive) relationship between film and music,
this book takes the first step in that direction.
On the other hand, the concept of film musicality can be under-
stood as a general metaphor for all those aspects of film that are rarely
Conclusion 185

examined. Some might be neglected simply because they are not imme-
diately apprehensible but the reason might also be the blinkered view of
scholarship which is interested in obvious, palpable or ‘scientific’ aspects
of things. And while this attitude might be appropriate for cultural stud-
ies and social sciences, it cannot be sufficient for the experience of art
and discussions about it. Art might be the subject of historical, cultural,
critical or formalistic studies, it might be reviewed as entertainment and
marketed as a commodity, but art is also esoteric and its most power-
ful effects usually come from a place which is hard to define or explain.
Looking for the musicality of film means opening channels for watching
film audio-visually. It means allowing oneself to watch, hear, sense and
process the experience without discarding intuitive revelations which
might not be obvious in the script or on the screen. Realizing the musi-
cal potential of film means aiming for rhythm, balance, a sense of
inherent logic within or outside the conventions of formal structuring,
a sense of flow and that indescribable quality by which an artwork can
affect us profoundly, so we can see the world and ourselves differently.
Looking for the musical potential of film is not (only) about sound and
music: it is about allowing film to be all it can be, rather than confin-
ing it to a story, a social comment, a spectacle or a commercial product.
It means recognizing the full potential of film.

1 Introduction
1. It is worth mentioning that neither film sound nor film music will be
considered here in extensive historical, theoretical or aesthetic contexts.
My investigations of speech, music, sound effects, soundscapes and audio-
visual musique concrète will be limited to examples directly relating to the
concept of film musicality and its appearance in practice.
2. Auster talks about the writing process as a ‘buzzing in the head’, ‘a certain
kind of music, rhythm, tone’ (Wood, 2004, pp. 43–4) while Hornby (2002)
aims to achieve the ‘effects of listening to music’ through his structures.
3. For a detailed analysis of musicality in non-narrative cinema see Mollaghan
4. For a critical discussion about Romantic notions of music’s uniqueness see
Goehr (1992).

2 Music as Model and Metaphor

1. The study of music inspired one of the first scientific explanations of the
universe, proposed by Pythagoras, according to which the laws and propor-
tions of the universe are mirrored in the mathematical principles of musical
harmony. The idea of music containing the secrets of the universe and mir-
roring the ‘harmony of the spheres’ can be traced throughout the history
of music theory and esoteric science in the work of theoreticians such as
Gioseffo Zarlino, Johannes Kepler and Albert Freiherr von Thimus, while its
resonances can be identified in the philosophical writings of 20th-century
composers, including Arnold Schoenberg, Paul Hindemith and Karlheinz
2. Eisenstein explains natural synchronization as a mechanical matching of
image and sound; rhythmical synchronization creates metric relationships,
syncopated combinations and a rhythmical counterpoint between the hori-
zontals; melodic synchronization is a relationship between the linear struc-
tures of music and image; tonal synchronization is a relationship between
sonic movement and the tonality of a picture, which involves relationships
between light, shadow, colour and tone (1986, pp. 70–2).
3. For Eisenstein polyphonic montage is a means of combining constructive
elements of a composition’s whole, not only those that are part of the
image but also conceptual and affective ones. For instance, in the ‘procession
sequence’ in his film The Old and the New (1934) he identifies polyphonic
‘lines of the heat’, ‘line of growing ecstasy’, lines of male and female voices
(the faces of male and female singers), the lines of those who are kneeling
along with the lines of those who are crawling. In this, ‘the general course of
the montage was an uninterrupted interweaving of these diverse themes into

Notes 187

one unified movement. Each montage-piece had a double responsibility – to

build the total line as well as to continue the movement within each of the
contributory themes,’ (1986, p. 65).
4. The connections between film and opera have often been evoked in scholar-
ship but mostly to emphasize the influence of late-Romantic practices, and
Wagner’s leitmotif techniques in particular, on the conventions of classical
Hollywood scoring (London, 2000; Paulin, 2000). In his book Cinema’s Illu-
sions, Opera’s Allure, David Schroeder expands that discussion to argue that
opening credits have the function of an overture and traces mythological
aspects in film plots to opera librettos.
5. Until recently, and starting with Claudia Gorbman’s groundbreaking
Unheard Melodies, the list of significant monographs that set the foundations
of modern film music theory was relatively short (Flinn, 1992; Kalinak, 1992;
Brown, 1994; Donnelly, 2001, 2005; Kassabian, 2001; Davison, 2004) and
habitually cited in all new publications, but in the last decade the number
of monographs and edited collections in this field have grown dramati-
cally, especially since the appearance of two new prominent series published
by Oxford University Press (Music and Media) and Routledge (Music and
6. For a detailed analysis of the influences of serial and aleatoric music on
Godard’s films Vivre sa vie and Pierrot le fou, see Royal S. Brown (1994).
7. A detailed analysis of the soundtrack to Godard’s Prénom: Carmen can be
found in Davison (2004) and Gorbman (2007).
8. The numerous studies exploring the collaboration between Ennio Morricone
and Sergio Leone and the ‘operatic’ elements of Spaghetti Westerns include
those by Staig and Williams (1975), Brown (1994), Cumbow (1997) and
Smith (1998).
9. Kubrick’s idiosyncratic use of pre-existing music and his musical approach to
the soundtrack have been extensively explored by scholars including Chion
(2001), Patterson (2004), Donnelly (2005), Gorbman (2006) and Paulus
10. See also Alan Williams (1985).
11. Until his collaboration with Anthony Minghella, Murch had worked almost
exclusively with directors living in the San Francisco Bay area (Francis
Coppola, George Lucas, Philip Kaufman). The Bay Area approach to sound
encourages longer stages of post-production during which sound design is
meticulously built to incorporate dialogue, sound effects and music from
the very beginning, as opposed to the practice of mixing these elements
after they have been prepared separately. Gianluca Sergi distinguishes this
from the New York Metropolitan sound, which is more ‘gutsy . . . influenced,
among other things, by rap and other forms of black music’ (quoted in
Davison, 2004, pp. 192–3).
12. Chris Cunningham’s video for the song ‘Only You’ (1998) by Portishead is
an effective example of this approach. Here Cunningham creates an image
of a night-time world as if submerged under water by filming a teenage boy
floating in a huge underwater tank and then superimposing this material
in slow-motion over the background of a dark alley. Frame cutting is used
to speed up and slow down his movements under the water so that they
coincide perfectly with the flow and changes in the music.
188 Notes

3 The Musicality of Film Rhythm

1. A bibliography covering all writings about rhythm in music collected by
Jonathan D. Kramer and published in 1985 has around 850 items. When it
comes to rhythm in film, apart from the French film Impressionists, Jean
Mitry (1997, 2000), Andrey Tarkovsky (1986) and Claudia Widgery (1990),
few theoreticians and directors have discussed this subject in depth.
2. A long shot full of action will appear shorter than a static close-up of the
same duration. However, a dynamic close shot will be perceived as shorter
than a static long shot. As Mitry concluded, ‘the more dynamic the con-
tent and the wider the framing, the shorter the shot appears; the more
static the content and narrower the framing, the longer the shot appears’
(2000, p. 223). For the relationship between mobile framing and our sense
of duration in film see also Bordwell and Thompson (1993, pp. 226–7).
3. It is revealing, though, that the term ‘rhythmic editing’ still has the same
meaning in contemporary textbooks about film as in the era of the Soviet
montage school: it considers the length of the shots in relation to each other,
implying that the actual durations of the takes are the most important factors
in establishing rhythmic relations between them (Bordwell and Thompson,
1993, pp. 256–66; 277–9).
4. The distinctive slow-motion shots in The Matrix and The Matrix Reloaded were
created as a result of a special effects technique called ‘bullet-time’, designed
specifically for the first Matrix film in order to illustrate the action in the
constructed (‘virtual’) reality and the superior mind-over-Matrix capabilities
of the main protagonist Neo. Not until The Matrix Reloaded were they used
consistently as rhythmic accents.
5. The Gestalt ‘laws of organization’, discussed in depth by Wertheimer, Köhler,
Koffka and others, involve, for example, the ‘law of symmetry’, which
describes the tendency to see shapes as being as symmetrical as possible;
the ‘law of good continuation’ relating to the tendency to see lines and
edges as being as uninterrupted as possible; the ‘law of proximity’ relating
to the tendency to see things that are close together as belonging together,
which corresponds to the similar law of temporal Gestalt. The law of ‘com-
mon fate’ says that objects which move or change together are seen as a
unit. This law reflects the power of relative movement as an organizing
force for perception. However, these laws are useful descriptors mostly for
two-dimensional symbolic or abstract representation. Haber and Hershenson
(1980, pp. 315–6); Julian Hochberg (1972, pp. 51–2).
6. See ‘Temporal Factors in Visual Perception’ in Haber and Hershenson (1980,
pp. 113–40).
7. This is the timing of the scene in the DVD release of Mirror (Artificial Eye,
2002, PAL).
8. In his chapter about how the development of certain technological sound
devices influenced the practice and style of Hollywood cinema of the 1930s,
Barry Salt points out that as soon as technology allowed it (by the intro-
duction of ‘rubber numbering’ of the cutting copies), most directors moved
towards faster cutting and established an average shot length that was
in most cases just slightly longer than that typical of silent films of the
late 1920s (around five seconds). This observation proves the tendency
of American directors towards shorter shot lengths compared to European
Notes 189

directors (Salt, 1985, pp. 37–43). The same inclination for short shots was
confirmed after the introduction of the CinemaScope system, which was
expected to instigate a revision of the norms of staging and cutting – the
elimination of close-ups, the slowing down of cutting, decreased depth
of fields, reduction of camera movements, etc. – but Hollywood quickly
adapted the new screen shape to classical stylistic norms, keeping the aver-
age length of shots between six and eight seconds (Bordwell, 1997, pp.
9. This is the timing of the scene in the DVD release of Requiem for a Dream
(Momentum Pictures, DVD Video, 2001, PAL).
10. The influence of hip hop on Aronofsky’s early work will be explored in detail
in Chapter 8.
11. The choice of Epstein’s terminology here can be confusing because generally
in literature pulse is more often identified with metre and beat (chronometric
time) than rhythm (integral time). According to Cooper and Meyer (1966,
pp. 3–4), a ‘pulse is one of a series of regularly recurring, precisely equiv-
alent stimuli’ and when ‘pulses are counted within a metric context, they
are referred to as beats’. They also say that ‘rhythm is at least theoretically
independent of pulse’, which means that in this context pulse is identi-
fied with metre. Epstein, on the other hand, employs the word ‘pulse’ as
a manifestation of rhythmic, not metric content.

4 The Rhythm of Rhythms

1. Tenney and Polansky’s (1980, pp. 205–39) definition of the temporal Gestalt
unit (or TG) is based on the recognition of the hierarchical levels of percep-
tual organization in music. It encompasses TG units at the simplest level,
which are not temporally divisible (an element), to the ‘clangs’ that consist
of a succession of two or more elements, followed by TG units at successive
levels embodied in sequences, segments, sections, to the TG at the highest level
identified with the piece itself.
2. A possible analogy between TG units in music in film would be that element
corresponds to shot, clang to scene, sequence to sequence and so on.
3. Cone’s remark was later conceptualized in the context of a theory of rhythm
developed by Lerdahl and Jackendoff (1983, pp. 30–3) and typified by the
terms structural anacrusis (upbeat) and structural downbeat, where the for-
mer describes the time span of prolonged tension, while the latter refers
to the moment of release marked by the convergence of different musical
parameters relating to grouping structure, metrical structure and harmonic
4. According to Rose, by conceiving repetition as if it were a singular force,
Adorno, Jameson and Attali suggest that
mass production sets the terms for repetition and that any other cultural
forms of repetition, once practiced inside systems of mass production, are
subsumed by the larger logic of industrialization. Consequently, no other
mass-produced or mass-consumed forms that privilege forms of repeti-
tion are accessible or relevant once inside this larger logic of industrial
(1994, p. 72)
190 Notes

5. Sexy Beast was written by Louis Mellis, David Scinto and Andrew Michael
Jolley (story).
6. Both Ray Winston and Ben Kingsley in ‘behind the scenes’ interviews refer
to the rhythmic aspect of the writing as ‘poetry’ (Sexy Beast DVD release,
Extra Features, Film Four 4 Video, 2002).
7. In the European DVD release of the film (Region 2, PAL), the rhythmic dia-
logue exchange between Don and Gal which precedes the montage sequence
starts around 0.23.00 and moves into the montage sequence at 0.24.11.
8. This theme was originally composed by Shigeru Umebayashi for Seijun
Suzuki’s film Yumeji (1991).
9. ‘The viewer builds the fabula on the basis of prototype schemata (identifi-
able types of persons, actions, locales, etc.), template schemata (principally
the “canonic” story) and procedural schemata (a search for appropriate
motivations and relations of causality, time, and space),’ (Bordwell, 1997,
p. 49).
10. The first story is about a young man, Matsumoto, who leaves his fiancée
Sawako in order to marry his boss’s daughter. When he finds out about
Sawako’s attempted suicide, which leaves her brain-damaged, Matsumoto
is riddled with guilt and decides to abandon everything and devote the rest
of his life to being with her. They end up wandering through the country
joined by a rope, enacting the traditional Bunraku role of ‘bounded beggars’.
In the second story, an old man, Hiro, remembers how he deserted the girl he
loved in order to fulfil his ambition to become a gangster boss. When he was
breaking up with her, the girl said she would return every Saturday afternoon
to the same bench in the park with two lunch boxes. Decades later, full of
regret, Hiro returns to the park one Saturday afternoon and finds the woman
sitting on the same bench, with two lunches. He continues meeting her there
on Saturdays, until one day, on his way back to the car, he is murdered.
The third story is about a young pop-star who chooses isolation after becom-
ing disfigured in a car accident. The only one who manages to get through
to her is a devoted fan who puts out his own eyes so she knows he cannot
see her. Like Hiro in the previous story, he also dies after one meeting with
the girl – he is run down by a car.
11. The title itself refers to this theatrical form which uses dolls, instead of actors,
each controlled by puppeteers visible onstage.
12. For instance, if two scenes (A and B) consist of six shots each, instead of
presenting them in chronological order Kitano might present the first one
as follows: A1 A2 A3 A4 A6 A5 A6, or A1 A2 A3 A4 A6 A5 A6 A5. He might
also combine two scenes by inserting a shot from the second scene into
the first one: A1 A2 A3 B4 A4 A5 A6 and then present the second scene
chronologically. Other variations are also used.

5 Musical and Film Kinesis

1. I am using this word of Greek origin as it covers the meanings of both
‘motion’ and ‘movement’ and as it is the obvious and only source of the
adjective ‘kinetic’, which describes what relates to, is caused by or produces
motion. I also like the fact that this word still carries a remnant of its original
meaning as employed by Plato in his Timaeus, where kinesis refers to the
Notes 191

‘movements of the soul’ which have ’an affinity with the divine part within
us’ (Plato, 1969, p. 46; pp. 52–3; Rouge, 1985, pp. 203–4).
2. Some scholars, like Gregory Currie (1996, p. 336) for instance, challenge the
view of film movement as an illusion with the claim that ‘a certain, restricted
kind of apparent motion in cinema is, in fact, not merely apparent, but real’
and he calls it ‘cinematic motion’.
3. Unlike the idea of music being expressive of human feelings, which is still
one of the most contentious issues in music aesthetics, the notion of music’s
inductive potential has not only rarely been challenged but also its connec-
tion with movement has often been noted (see Sessions, 1962, p. 22; Epstein,
1995, p. 457; Langer, 1996, p. 228; Scherer and Zentner, 2001, p. 377 and
so on.)
4. The other kind of exception is Aleksandar Sokurov’s film Russian Ark (2002),
which was shot in its totality in a single, 90-minute-long take, using a digital
5. Despite Kolker’s previously cited remark that continuous camera movement
has often been used with the intention to provide ‘a kind of visual ana-
logue to the form of the music’, it is hardly necessary to add that not all
diegetic and camera movements exercise that intention or induce a sense of
musicality. How much the perception of the nature and effect of movement
depends on the context can be illustrated by Alan Clarke’s Elephant (1989),
which provided the original inspiration for Van Sant’s film. Clarke’s unusual
take on the Northern Irish problem of ‘getting used to living with the ele-
phant in your lounge’ consists of a series of silent long takes showing people
walking and then committing murders. While Van Sant combines long track-
ing shots with dialogue scenes and actually takes some time to introduce his
characters, Clarke’s film is deliberately monotonous, repetitive and detached,
gradually building up an overwhelming feeling of senselessness and the
absurdity of sectarian crimes rather than musicality.
6. This is the timing of the scene in the DVD of Gerry (Film Four, 2004, PAL).
7. Tintinnabuli is a stylistic device in which one voice arpeggiates the pitches
of the tonic triad while another moves in stepwise motion.
8. See also Chapter 2.
9. That is not to say that his concept of audio-visual counterpoint presented in
the ‘Statement’ he wrote with Pudovkin and Alexandrov in 1928 should be
understood simply as contrasting the relationship between music and image,
as was interpreted by Kracauer and then repeatedly misused in film theory
and criticism. Eisenstein’s use of the term polyphonic montage in silent film
(see Chpt. 2, note 3) makes it clear that his understanding of counterpoint
is closer to the original musical meaning advocating the interweaving of
independent lines of visual composition, editing and music.
10. See for instance Adorno and Eisler (1947/1994, pp. 78–9, 152–7); Prendergast
(1977/1992, pp. 223–6); Brown (1994, pp. 136–8); Thompson (1981).
11. The experiments of G. Harrer and H. Harrer demonstrated that in react-
ing to music that has a prominent acceleration or deceleration in tempo,
some of the subjects tended to synchronize with the music primarily
through pulse, while others did it through breathing (Epstein, 1995, p. 151).
C. L. Krumhansl’s research shows that, even though subjects did not always
agree about the type of emotional responses to music, in all cases music
affected their vegetative nervous system and produced changes in heart rate,
192 Notes

blood pressure, skin conductance and temperature, or changes in respiratory

patterns (Scherer and Zentner, 2001, p. 375) and Ben Winters stressed that a
similar effect can be ascribed to film music (2008).
12. The director of photography in this film was Henri Alekan who worked with
Wenders on The State of Things (1982) and is also famous for his work on
Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1945).
13. This is the timing of the scene in the DVD release of Wings of Desire (Axiom
Films, 1987, PAL).
14. This is the timing of the scene in the DVD release of The Matrix (Warner
Home Video, UK, 1999, PAL).

6 The Symbolic Nature of Musical and Film Time

1. Before the standardization of projection speed to 24 frames per second for
sound film, silent films were shot and projected at speeds which varied
between 12 and 26 fps, depending on the year and the studio.
2. Ralph Stephenson and Guy Phelps (1989, p. 139) give the example of ‘expres-
sive montage’ which connects the pictures of a crowd of commuters and a
flock of sheep in Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931), or women gossiping
and hens cackling in Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936).
3. Obviously, this statement is applicable to both spatial and temporal art forms
except in cases of musical open form or musical and theatrical works which
include improvisation.
4. Contemplative cinema was a widely used term until 2010 (February) when,
on the pages of UK magazine Sight and Sound, Jonathan Romney coined the
term ‘Slow Cinema’ to describe the ‘varied strain of austere minimalist cin-
ema’ that had marked the first decade of our century in the work of Lisandro
Alonso, Béla Tarr and Carlos Reygadas.
5. The term was famously used by Paul Schrader in his book Transcendental
Style in Film which discusses the work of Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson and
Carl Dreyer (1972).
6. Eisenstein’s techniques of ‘montage of attractions’, ‘intellectual montage’
and ‘vertical montage’ were all based on the belief that only through the
conflict or synthesis of two different shots can the envisioned new meaning
emerge, the meaning that allows the filmmaker to create significant aes-
thetic, ideological or even historical statements. The main aim of classical
Hollywood style and its continuity editing, though, is to make form ‘invisi-
ble’, so that the viewer becomes immersed in the story and can easily identify
with its participants.
7. ‘The instant is what comes, and at the same time what distracts; in a basic
contradiction, it is both what makes time pass over us by manifesting our
being-for-death, and that which distances us from the thought of death,
from care’ (Aumont, 2000, p. 102).
8. According to the biological origin of the world, Umwelt represents the ‘self-
world’ or a ‘circumscribed portion of the environment’ for a given species,
while in Fraser’s interpretation the meaning is extended to represent ‘self-
worlds’ and temporalities of matter, animals and man.
Notes 193

9. Fraser defines nootemporality as the temporal reality of the mature human

mind characterized by a clear distinction between future, past and present.
Biotemporality is the temporal reality of living organisms including man, as
far as his biological functions are concerned. Eotemporality is the temporal
reality of the astronomical universe of massive matter. It is a continuous but
nondirected, nonflowing time to which our ideas of present, future or past
cannot be applied. The time of the world of elementary particles is called
prototemporality. This is an undirected, nonflowing as well as fragmented
(noncontinuous) time for which precise locations of instants have no mean-
ing. The world of electromagnetic radiation is termed ‘atemporal’ for none of
our ordinary notions associated with time apply to its state of energy. It is the
most primitive level of the universe, that of radiative chaos. Physics divides
its concerns along the distinctive temporalities of the physical world. The
special theory of relativity addresses the atemporal world of light, quantum
theory focuses on the prototemporal universe of particle-waves, the general
theory of relativity deals with the eotemporal cosmos and thermodynamics
encompasses them all, at least as far as the discoveries of physics about time
go (1981, pp. 106–12, 358, 367–8).
10. As Marshall McLuhan showed, the linear conception of time can also be con-
nected with language, because the word and the sentence are linear in form,
analytical, consequential, progressive. In preliterate society, where time was
viewed cyclically, language too was more ‘organic’ (Shallis, 1982, p. 15).
11. One storyline is based on the character of a movie star who inadvertently
starts living the life of the character she’s playing; one features a working-
class woman who becomes pregnant without knowing that her husband is
sterile; another focuses on a possibly homeless woman whose recollection of
adultery is just a minor incident in a story of abuse and loss communicated
through a long monologue. All these characters are played by Laura Dern,
but they all could be projections of another character, a Polish woman, who
is shown at the beginning and throughout the film watching a TV screen
on which some of the movie’s other plot strands appear. The connection
between her and Laura Dern’s character is confirmed at the end in the scene
in which they kiss and merge into one – an archetypal image of integration as
explained by Jung; a process in which the disturbed, wounded, traumatized,
borderline-insane self is accepted and forgiven by the psyche, the two of
them becoming one.
12. In the second episode the girls dance to Carol King’s song ‘Locomotion’, and
in the third they lip-sync ‘At Last’ by Etta James.

7 Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man and the Rhythm

of Musical Form
1. It’s just another brand slapped on something to market it. I don’t know
what it means anymore. It’s like ‘alternative’ music. It means nothing now.
It’s used to make alternative music commercial, you know, mainstream.
I’ve never liked titles slapped on things anyway . . . At this point, what the
hell does that mean?
(Jarmusch quoted in Baumgarten, 2001, p. 174)
194 Notes

2. As a student, Jarmusch made the film Permanent Vacation (1980).

3. . . . In be-bop and in hip-hop Charlie Parker can play at what was at the
time considered an incredibly outside solo, but he will quote a standard
within that solo. He’s not playing the standard, but he is referring to it
and weaving it into something completely new and his own. And in hip-
hop, the backing tracks are made from other things and put together to
construct something new out of them. In the past, when I was writing and
I thought of a reference to another film or another book, I always pushed
it away because it was not original. But this time I just opened that door
and I think music convinced me to do that.
(Jarmusch quoted in Geoff Andrew, 2001, pp. 189–90)
4. The urban character of the first part is emphasized by funky jazz music written
by John Lurie, who is also one of the actors. The second part takes place in
a prison without any music whatsoever, and the escape from the prison in
the third part brings the characters into the swamps of Louisiana, which are
teeming with Lurie’s ‘ambient’ jazz.
5. Jarmusch explained his approach while discussing the use of blackouts in
Stranger than Paradise:

They get shorter towards the end as the pace of the story picks up a little
bit. That was something done very carefully. It took a long time to make
those decisions and you wouldn’t even know it unless you had a stop-
watch, but I think the rhythm influences the story a lot. It’s something
that took a long time to decide. We decided each one individually.
(Quoted in Belsito, 2001, p. 35)

6. Beside the theme of William Blake’s destined journey which dominates the
movie, Neil Young’s score also contains the short motif of the ‘hunt’, as well
as the motif of Blake’s Indian friend, Nobody, which resembles Indian ritual
chanting on one tone and a short theme of the ‘ghost visions’.
7. See Royal S. Brown’s Overtones and Undertones (1994, pp. 8–11) for an insightful
application of Lévi-Strauss’ ideas to film music analysis.
8. Rickman insists that Blake is a protagonist ‘who never learns anything from
his ordeal. He is a traveller across a mythic landscape who remains oblivious
to it’ (1998, p. 390). He finds the proof of Blake’s ignorance in the last joke in
which, having been told by Nobody that his journey will take him ‘back where
he came from’, he responds with the words ‘You mean Cleveland’? It seems
to me that this joke is more about the final misunderstanding between the
two cultures than the ‘comic deflation of the very notion of a spiritual

8 Hip Hop and Techno Composing Techniques and Models

of Structuring in Darren Aronofsky’s π
1. Originally, The Fountain was supposed to be made with a $70 million budget
starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, but, after Pitt pulled out of the project,
production was shut down. Aronofsky eventually made the film with the
budget slashed in half, starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, but the
Notes 195

reception among critics was divided and the release in Europe was limited.
The film has gathered a cult following since.
2. Also, in video and DVD distribution the film was given the subtitle ‘Faith in
3. Sound design was created by Brian Emrich.
4. This is the timing of the scene in the DVD release of π (Pathé!, 1998, PAL).
5. Dub is a musical style originating in reggae music of the late 1960s, involv-
ing remixing records to bring certain instruments to the foreground (usually
bass and drums) and causing others to echo. In a dub the original tune
is still recognizable, but it may be ‘stretched, broken and bent into the
most extraordinary shapes by all kinds of electronic wizardry’. It usually
involves distortion of a sound with echo and reverb but a more experimental
approach to dub can even make the music resemble free jazz (Hebdige, 1987,
pp. 82–4).
6. I refer here not only to music, but to all other sonic aspects of the film that
include dialogue, Max’s voice-over, diegetic and non-diegetic sound effects.
7. This title is given to this sequence in the DVD chapter index.
8. There is also a short transitional scene in the third act (1.10.10–1.10.43),
showing Max rushing home after declaring to the Jewish mystics that he
was the one chosen to communicate with God. Corresponding to his state
of exhilaration, the soundtrack for this scene is created by overlapping seg-
ments of Max’s voice-overs, electronically produced noises and a fragment
of Max’s musical theme.
9. As all the elements of the story that concern the number Pi, the Golden
Spiral, the Golden Ratio, the 216-digit number behind the Torah and so
on, are based on real facts, so Max’s belief that a certain shape or pattern
is behind the constitution of the universe can be supported by the theory
of the ‘interconnected universe’ proposed by physicist David Bohm. In his
book Wholeness and the Implicate Order Bohm explains the concept of ‘undi-
vided wholeness’ according to which the universe is constructed on the same
principles as a hologram, so that the entire information of the universe is
contained in each of its parts. See also Reyner (2001, pp. 20–1).
10. Fragments of Max’s voice-over were also used for the π music soundtrack CD
(Thrive Records, 1998), inserted between tracks by different artists.
11. Beside Mansell’s original score, the film also uses tracks by other artists and
bands like Autechre, Orbital, Banco de Gaia, Spacetime Continuum and
so on.
12. It is important to distinguish here between films about hip hop, like 8 Mile
(2002) and films like π and Requiem for a Dream that are not at all about hip
hop but inspired by it in terms of its sampling practices.

9 Audio-Visual Musicality and Reflexivity in Joe Wright’s

Anna Karenina
1. On the CD this track is entitled ‘Beyond the Stage’.
2. A similarly powerful moment can be found in War and Peace when
Andrei Bolkonsky, wounded during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, regains
196 Notes

consciousness in a crowded hospital and seeing the face of the girl he loves,
Natasha, believes it is an apparition.
3. Levin’s high strings are also combined with Masha’s song in the scene in
which Kitty nurses his sick brother Nikolay in the presence of an ‘indecent’
woman. Even though having a ‘fallen woman’ under the same roof as his
bride seems at first unimaginable to Levin, since even the maid won’t come
to the house while Masha is there, the musical juxtaposition is deliberately
consonant. The worlds of the highly idealistic Konstantin and his alienated,
rebellious brother who married a former prostitute are brought together in the
nursing scene through Kitty’s no-nonsense approach and kindness and are
represented musically in a gentle, lyrical combination of high-pitched strings
and Masha’s song presented non-diegetically.
4. This is the timing of the scene in the DVD release of Anna Karenina (Universal
Pictures, 2012, PAL).
5. Even though only the germ of this waltz is chromatic (its first four notes
surrounding the dominant of the waltz’s original key, D minor), I’ll call this
theme a ‘chromatic waltz’ to distinguish it from the other waltz with which it
is sometimes combined.
6. Tchaikovsky’s own description of the 1st movement of his Symphony No. 4 in
his letter to Nadezhda von Meck (E. Garden and N. Gotteri).

1. Lessing’s famous treatise on arts, Laocoon (1766), which insisted on a strict
division between spatial (painting, sculpture, architecture) and temporal
(poetry and music) arts, was quite influential until the mid-20th century and
spurred many supporting studies including Irving Babbitt’s The New Laocoon
(1910) and Clement Greenberg’s ‘Towards a Newer Laocoon’ (1940).
2. In my 2008 article ‘Sound Design is the New Score’ I discuss the trend
of replacing traditional scores with musically conceived sound effects and
musique concrète as a consequence of the musical approach to film on one
hand and the general saturation of filmmaking practice with the scoring con-
ventions of narrative cueing and using music to tell the audience ‘how it
should feel’ on the other. It is also worth noting Anahid Kassabian’s (2003,
p. 95) point that the approach to film soundtrack ‘in which sound materials
are no longer treated according to clearly established hierarchies of voice over
music over sound over noise’ can be traced to the fact that after Cage much
of 20th-century music history has been about absorbing noise into music.

Adorno, T. and H. Eisler (1947/1994) Composing for the Films (London and Atlantic
Highlands: The Athlone Press).
Altman, R. (1985) ‘The Evolution of Sound Technology’ in E. Weis and J. Belton
(eds) Film Sound: Theory and Practice (New York: Columbia University Press),
Altman, R. (ed.) (1992) Sound Theory/Sound Practice (New York: Routledge).
Altman, R., M. Jones and S. Tatroe (2000) ‘Inventing the Cinema Soundtrack:
Hollywood’s Multiplane Sound System’ in J. Buhler, C. Flinn and D. Neumeyer
(eds) Music and Cinema (Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press),
Alvarez, J. (1989) ‘Rhythm as Motion Discovered’, Contemporary Music Review
Vol. 3, 203–231.
Anderson, J. M. (1998) ‘Darren Aronofsky: Easy as 3.14 . . . ’, Combustible Celluloid,, date accessed 29 November
Andrew, G. (1998) Stranger Than Paradise: Maverick Film-Makers in Recent American
Cinema (London: Prion Books).
Andrew, G. (2001) ‘Jim Jarmusch Interview’ in L. Hertzberg (ed.) Jim Jarmusch
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Alexander Nevsky (Sergei Eisenstein, Soviet Union, 1938).

Amores Perros (Alejandro González Iñárritu, Mexico, 2000).
Anna Karenina (Joe Wright, UK, 2012).
L’année dernière à Marienbad (Alain Resnais, France, 1961).
Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, USA, 1979).
Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Louis Malle, France, 1957).
Atonement (Joe Wright, UK, 2007).
Ballet mécanique (Fernand Léger, France, 1924).
Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, USA, 2005).
Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, Soviet Union, 1925).
Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, USA, 2010).
Blue Velvet (David Lynch, USA, 1986).
Boogie Doodle (Norman McLaren, Canada, 1948).
Breathe In (Drake Doremus, USA, 2013).
Broken Flowers (Jim Jarmusch, USA/France, 2005).
Chungking Express (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 1994).
Cinq minutes de cinéma pur (Henri Chomette, France, 1925).
Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys (Code inconnu: Récit incomplet de
divers voyages, Michael Haneke, France/Germany/Romania, 2000).
Colour Box, A (Len Lye, UK, 1935).
Conversation, The (Francis Ford Coppola, USA, 1974).
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, Taiwan/Hong Kong/USA/China, 2000).
Crucified Lovers, The (Kenji Mizoguchi, Japan, 1954).
Damnation (Béla Tarr, Hungary, 1988).
Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, USA/Germany/Japan, 1995).
Dolls (Takeshi Kitano, Japan, 2002).
Don Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, USA, 2013).
Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, UK, 1973).
Down By Law (Jim Jarmusch, USA, 1986).
Elephant (Alan Clarke, UK, 1989).
Elephant (Gus Van Sant, USA, 2003).
Eraserhead (David Lynch, USA, 1977).
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, USA, 2004).
Fountain, The (Darren Aronofsky, USA, 2006).
Gerry (Gas Van Sant, USA, 2002).
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jim Jarmusch, France/Germany/USA/Japan,
Godfather, The I–III (Francis Ford Coppola, USA, 1972/1974/1990).
Go (Doug Liman, USA, 1999).
GoodFellas (Martin Scorsese, USA, 1990).
Hero (Zhang Yimou, Hong Kong/China/USA, 2002).
Hidden (Caché, Michael Haneke, France/Austria/Germany, 2005).
Hiroshima mon amour (Alain Resnais, France, 1958).

210 Filmography

House of Flying Daggers (Zhang Yimou, Hong Kong/China, 2004).

In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 2000).
Inland Empire (David Lynch, France/Poland/USA, 2006).
Irréversible (Gaspar Noé, France, 2002).
Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, USA, 1997).
JFK (Oliver Stone, USA, 1991).
Kill Bill vols 1 and 2 (Quentin Tarantino, USA, 2003; 2004).
Lantana (Ray Lawrence, Australia, 2001).
Last Days (Gus Van Sant, USA, 2005).
Limits of Control, The (Jim Jarmusch, USA, 2009).
Lost Highway (David Lynch, USA, 1997).
Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999, USA).
Mambo (Jordan Belson, USA, 1952).
Matrix Reloaded, The (The Wachowski Brothers, USA, 2003).
Matrix, The (The Wachowski Brothers, USA, 1999).
Memento (Christopher Nolan, USA, 2000).
Mirror, The (Andrei Tarkovsky, Soviet Union, 1974).
Mother, The (Vsevolod Pudovkin, Soviet Union, 1926).
Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, USA/Australia, 2001).
Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, USA, 2001).
Mystery Train (Jim Jarmusch, USA/Japan, 1989).
Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, USA, 1994).
Night on Earth (Jim Jarmusch, USA, 1991).
October (Sergei Eisenstein, Soviet Union, 1928).
Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone, USA, 1984).
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, UK/Germany, 2013).
Optical Poem, An (Oscar Fischinger, USA, 1938).
Opus 1, 2, 3, 4 (Lichtspiel, Walter Ruttman, Germany, 1921–5).
Pi (Darren Aronofsky, USA, 1998).
Pierrot le fou (Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1965).
Prénom: Carmen (Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1983).
Prospero’s Books (Peter Greenaway, UK/France, 1991).
Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, USA, 1994).
Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, USA, 1980).
Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1950).
Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, USA, 2000).
Romeo + Juliet (Baz Luhrmann, USA/Australia/UK, 1996).
Royal Tenenbaums, The (Wes Anderson, USA, 2001).
Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, Germany, 1998).
Russian Arc (Aleksander Sokurov, Russia/Germany, 2002).
Samurai, The (Le Samouraï, Jean-Pierre Melville, France, 1967).
Sátántangó (Béla Tarr, Hungary/Germany/Switzerland, 1994).
Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer, UK/Spain, 2000).
Shaun of the Dead (Simon Pegg, UK/France/USA, 2004).
Short Cuts (Robert Altman, USA, 1993).
Sixth Part of the World, A (Dziga Vertov, Soviet Union, 1926).
Spider (David Cronenberg, France, Canada, UK, 2002).
Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, USA, 2012).
Spun (Jonas Åkerlund, USA, 2002).
Filmography 211

Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch, USA, 1984).

Tempest, The (Derek Jarman, UK, 1979).
Thémes et variations (Germaine Dulac, France, 1928).
Timecode (Mike Figgis, USA, 2000).
Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, USA, 1958).
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (David Lynch, USA/France, 1992).
21 grams (Alejandro González Iñárritu, Germany/USA, 2003).
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, UK/USA, 2013).
Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, USA, 2013).
Vivre sa vie (Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1962).
Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin, Wim Wenders, Germany, 1987).
World’s End, The (Simon Pegg, UK/USA, 2013).

Note: Locators followed by the letter ‘n’ refer to notes.

accents, 38, 40–1, 45, 47, 49, 51, 55, audio-visual

65, 72, 82, 90, 123, 127, 131, 151, aesthetics, 5, 88
155, 173, 188n composing (scoring), 62, 82, 89–90,
audio-visual, 90, 127 126, 133
rhythmic, 82, 155, 188n counterpoint, 40, 45–6, 85, 173–4,
structural, 55, 72, 123 191n
Adorno, Theodor, 59, 189n, 191n design, 122, 131, 140, 142, 177
aesthetics, 5, 14, 16, 23, 30–2, 37, 43, flow, 27, 127, 157, 177
44–7, 50, 52, 79, 88, 100–2, 142, interaction, 40, 86
184, 191n kinesis, 26, 88–9, 148–9
of the cut, 37, 43, 44–5, 100, see also musique concrète, 79, 179
rhythm rhythm, 40, 44–5, 147
of MTV (music video), 30–2, 46 structure, 14, 27, 29, 51, 60,
of the shot, 16, 37, 43, 44–5, 50, 140, 155
100, 102, see also rhythm synthesis, 83, 85, 90, 121
Åkerlund, Jonas, 181 texture, 4, 133, 177
Alexander Nevsky, 83–5 Aumont, Jacques, 102, 192n
Alexandrov, G.V., 24, 46, 191n Auster, Paul, 6, 8, 186n
Altman, Rick, 23, 24 ‘auteur music’, 13, 28
Altman, Robert, 104
Alvarez, Javier, 52, 68 Ballet mécanique, 20
ambient music, 8, 75 Battleship Potemkin, 63
American Independent cinema, 14, ‘Bay Area sound’, 25
26, 28, 117–18 Bayer, Raymond, 54
Amores Perros, 104 Bazin, André, 100–1
Anderson, Jeffrey M., 138, 139 Beckett, Samuel, 6, 19
Anderson, Paul Thomas, 31 Bellour, Raymond, 57, 70
Anderson, Wes, 31 Belson, Jordan, 21
Anger, Kenneth, 28 Bergson, Henri, 9, 93, 97
Anna Karenina, 17, 27, 158–77, Birtwistle, Harrison, 104
179, 183 Black Swan, 137
L’année dernière à Marienbad, 22, 104 Blue Velvet, 25, 110
Apocalypse Now, 25 Bohlman, Philip V., 96
Aronofsky, Darren, 28, 30, 47, 49, 117, Boogie-Doodle, 21
137–57, 159, 181, 183, 189n, Bordwell, David, 9, 12, 22, 46, 58, 63,
194n 67, 68, 69, 76, 95, 98, 102, 105,
art hybridity, 179–80 188n, 189n, 190n
Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, 132 Boulez, Pierre, 104
Ashby, Arved, 13 Brakhage, Stan, 13, 28
Atonement, 162–3, 172 Breathe In, 183
Attali, Jacques, 59, 189n Brelèt, Gisele, 130

Index 213

Broken Flowers, 124, 132 Dern, Laura, 111–12, 193n

Brown, Royal S., 187n, 194n digital editing, 30–1, 82, 88
Buhler, James, 23 Dolls, 70–2, 190n
‘bullet-time’, 88–9, 188n Don Jon, 181–2
see also The Matrix Donnelly, Kevin, 10, 110, 183,
Burch, Noël, 9, 22, 26 187n
Don’t Look Now, 60
Cage, John, 7, 104, 124–5, 155, Doremus, Drake, 183
196n Down By Law, 119, 121, 122, 124, 132
Campbell, Joseph, 129, 130 Dreyer, Carl Theodor, 120, 192n
Carruth, Shane, 32, 183 Dulac, Germaine, 20
Cherkaoui, Sidi Larbi, 165, 169 Dürr, Walter, 37
Chion, Michel, 40, 43, 187n
Chomette, Henri, 20 editing, 16–17, 27–8, 30–3, 45–50,
Chungking Express, 140 55–6, 60–3, 69–72, 74, 76, 80–2,
Cinq minutes de cinéma pur, 20 88–91, 98–102, 126–8, 141–3,
Clarke, Alan, 184, 191n 147–51, 153–7, 171–2, 179, 181,
classical Hollywood, 14, 24, 46, 98, 188n, 192n
182, 187n, 192n see also montage; digital editing
scoring, 182, 187n Eisenstein, Sergei, 3, 21, 22, 24, 40, 46,
style, 46, 192n 63, 82–5, 91, 98, 186n, 191n,
Code Unknown, 29 192n
cognitive psychology, 14, 23, 57 electronic music, 7, 155, 156
Cohen, Annabel J., 22, 40, 58 Elephant (1989), 184, 191n
Colour Box, A, 21 Elephant (2003), 62, 77–8, 184
comparative analysis, 3, 4, 11, 13, 35, Epstein, David, 8, 37, 41, 49, 73, 76–7,
40, 91, 93, 94 86, 189n, 191n
Cone, Edward T., 53, 56, 95, 96, 127, Eraserhead, 39, 109
189n Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 28
Conversation, The, 25 European cinema, 14, 24–6, 29, 46
Cook, Nicholas, 10, 11, 43, 87
Cooper, Grosvenor, 38, 41, 189n Fatboy Slim, 31
Coppola, Francis Ford, 25, 187n Figgis, Mike, 3, 27, 32
Cronenberg, David, 39 film/music analogy, 3, 9, 14, 15, 22,
Cross, Brian, 143 23, 72
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 26, Fischinger, Oskar, 13, 20
89–90 flow, 8–9, 48–9, 56, 73–5, 77–8, 80–1,
Crowe, Cameron, 32 100–2, 127, 128, 141, 143, 148,
Crucified Lovers, The, 26 155–7, 159, 165–7, 169, 171–4,
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, 8 176–7, 185, 187n
Cunningham, Chris, 31, 187n formalism, 9, 12, 22, 54, 62, 73, 185
Fountain, The, 137, 194n
Damnation, 45 Fraser, J. T., 105, 112, 192n, 193n
Davies, Stephen, 23
Davison, Annette, 24, 87, 88, Gance, Abel, 20
187n Garwood, Ian, 87
Dead Man, 16–17, 117–36, 182 Gerry, 78–9
Deleuze, Gilles, 81, 101 Gesamtkunstwerk, 19, 21, 180
Deren, Maya, 28 see also Wagner
214 Index

Gestalt, 9, 14, 37, 40–2, 43, 51, 54, 65, immersivity, 8, 16, 55, 164, 178
66, 72, 74, 188n, 189n immersive form, 16, 55, 178
dominants, 42–3, 51 Impressionists (film), 3, 13, 20,
laws of perception, 40, 42, 65, 72 27, 38
psychology, 37, 41, 43, 74 Iñárritu, Alejandro González, 32–3,
temporal Gestalt, 9, 41–2, 54, 188n, 104
189n In the Mood for Love, 64–5, 70
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Inland Empire, 108–12
121, 124, 182
Glazer, Jonathan, 30, 31, 60, 183 Jackendoff, Ray, 55, 59, 189n
Godard, Jean-Luc, 3, 25, 27, 178, Jackie Brown, 62, 104
187n Jarman, Derek, 159
Godfather, The, 25 Jarmusch, Jim, 16, 28, 32, 55, 62, 81,
101, 104, 117–36, 137, 159, 182,
Goehr, Lydia, 19, 186n
193n, 194n
Gondry, Michel, 28, 30, 31
JFK, 82
GoodFellas, 77, 81
Johnson, Mark, 10–11
Gorbman, Claudia, 13, 28, 187n
Johnson, Nathan, 181
Gordon-Levitt, Joseph, 181–2
Jones, Kent, 123
Gostuški, Dragutin, 94, 95, 96 Jones, McGraw, 23
Greenaway, Peter, 159 Jonze, Spike, 30, 31
Greenwood, E. B., 159, 161, 175
grouping, 37, 41–2, 47, 50, 51, 53–5, Kandinsky, Vasilly, 19
90, 189n Kant, Immanuel, 19, 93, 100
rhythmical, 42, 51, 53 Kar-wai, Wong, 64, 67, 104
see also Gestalt Kassabian, Anahid, 187n, 196n
Kaufman, Charlie, 28
Hall, Stuart, 103 Kitano, Takeshi, 70–2, 190n
Haneke, Michael, 29, 183 Kite, B., 108–9
Kolker, Robert, 37, 43, 77, 191n
Hanslick, Eduard, 7
Korine, Harmony, 28, 63, 183
Hebdige, Dick, 143, 195n
Kracauer, Siegfried, 191n
Hero, 26, 89
Kramer, Jonathan, 8, 94, 97, 102, 103,
Hidden (Caché), 29
104, 105, 112, 188n
hip hop, 17, 28, 30, 47–8, 55, 121, Kubrick, Stanley, 3, 25, 187n
137, 139, 141–9, 151, 154–5, Kurosawa, Akira, 62, 121, 124
156–7, 179, 181, 182, 189n,
194n, 195n Lakoff, George, 10–11
montage/editing, 47, 48, 55, 60, Langer, Susanne K., 74, 107, 112,
141–9, 154–5, 157, 179, 181 191n
montage sequence, 47, 55, 141, Lantana, 69
143–8, 149, 154, 155 Last Days, 77
techniques, 17, 28, 48 Lawrence, Ray, 69
see also montage Lee, Ang, 26, 89–90
Hiroshima mon amour, 104 Lee, Spike, 28
Hodenfield, Chris, 31, 82 Léger, Fernand, 20
Hornby, Nick, 6, 8, 186n Leibowitz, Flo, 23
House of Flying Daggers, 26, 89 Leone, Sergio, 3, 25, 63, 140, 187n
Husserl, Edmund, 93, 97, 125 Lerdahl, Fred, 55, 58, 189n
Index 215

Lévi-Strauss, Claude, 96, 135, 194n Mizoguchi, Kenji, 26, 124

Liman, Doug, 104 montage, 21, 46, 47–9, 55, 60, 61, 70,
Limits of Control, The, 28, 124, 71, 96, 98, 101–3, 141, 142–9,
159, 182 154, 155, 181, 186–7n, 188n,
Lloyd, Genevieve, 97 190n, 191n, 192n
Lost Highway, 109 hip hop montage, 47–8, 55, 60,
Luhrmann, Baz, 82, 159, 178 141–9, 154–5, 181
Lye, Len, 13, 21 montage sequence, 47, 48–9, 55, 60,
Lynch, David, 3, 25, 32, 39, 68, 61, 70, 71, 96, 141, 142–9, 149,
107–12 154, 155, 190n
polyphonic montage, 21, 186n,
Macaulay Scott, 81, 101, 127, 161, 191n
165 vertical montage, 21, 192n
Magnolia, 31 Morin, Edgar, 29, 86
Malle, Louis, 132 morphing, 9, 17, 73, 109, 153, 159,
Mambo, 21 165, 167, 169, 171–4, 176, 177
Marianelli, Dario, 159–62, 165, 167, Mother, The, 63
169, 171 motion, 7–8, 56, 73–9, 82, 84, 128,
Mask of Orpheus, The, 104 130, 190n, 191n
Matrix, The, 26, 39, 89, 90–1, 188n Moulin Rouge!, 82
Matrix Reloaded, The, 39, 49, 60, 89,
Moussinac, Leon, 48
movement, 7–9, 15–17, 41–5, 72– 91,
McClary, Susan, 59
125–7, 148–9, 154–6, 165–7,
McLaren, Norman, 21
169–76, 183, 189n, 190n,
McLuhan, Marshall, 193n
Melville, Jean-Pierre, 121
camera movement, 4, 5, 16, 17, 23,
Memento, 63, 104
27, 33, 38, 42, 45, 76, 77, 81,
Mertens, Wim, 98, 99
86–8, 89, 91, 149, 154, 155,
metaphor, 3, 6, 10–11, 18, 50, 120,
156, 159, 171, 183, 189n, 191n
164, 178, 184
of editing, 42, 74, 80–2
see also musical metaphor
within a shot, 4, 16, 31, 42, 74, 76,
metre, 40–1, 45, 48–50, 83, 189n
77–80, 81, 86, 88, 183
see also rhythm
see also motion and flow
Metz, Christian, 24, 76
Meyer, Leonard B., 38, 41, 68, MTV, 3, 27, 29–32, 82, 127
189n aesthetics, 30–2
Minghella, Anthony, 32, 187n culture, 30, 82
Ming-Liang, Tsai, 28 generation, 3, 27, 32
minimalism, 8, 56, 65, 79, 98, 99, 100, see also music video
134, 192n Mulholland Drive, 107, 108, 110,
minimalist style/aesthetics, 118, 111, 112
131, 192n Münsterberg, Hugo, 21
Mirror, The, 44 Murch, Walter, 25, 29, 70, 80–1, 82,
mise-en-bande, 22, 23 187n
mise-en-scène, 4, 17, 23, 43, 56, 67, see also ‘Bay Area sound’
70, 72, 100, 159, 162, 165, 167, musical analogy, 6, 9, 22
171–2, 177, 184 musical approach, 4, 17, 22, 27, 33,
Mitry, Jean, 20, 38–9, 40, 42, 53, 85, 151, 159, 182, 183, 184, 187n,
188n 196n
216 Index

musicality, 3, 4–7, 9, 10, 13–18, 20, periodicity, 53–4, 57

24–6, 32, 56, 73, 74, 85–91, 93, see also rhythm
117, 120, 127, 131, 151–2, 154–5, Pi (π ), 16–17, 30, 47, 117, 137–5, 181,
157, 162, 179, 181, 183, 184, 185, 195n
186n, 191n Pierrot le fou, 25, 187n
of film, 3, 5, 9, 10, 13–16, 18, 20, Plato, 5–6, 190–1n
24–6, 32, 85–7, 117, 131, 157, Polansky, Larry, 41, 54, 189n
179, 181, 183, 184, 186n Portishead, 31, 187n
of language, 87, 151–2 Prénom: Carmen, 25, 187n
of movement, 74, 162 Pudovkin, Vsevolod, 24, 46, 63, 191n
musical metaphor, 3, 6 Pulp Fiction, 62, 104
musical patterning, 148–9, 152 punch phrasing, 143, 144, 145, 148
musical poetics, 12
musical potential, 4, 10, 12, 15, 17, 20, Raging Bull, 81, 82
24–5, 29, 33, 179, 182, 184, 185 Rashomon, 62, 121
musical principles, 5, 9, 14, 19, 107, Rayns, Tony, 64
110, 181, 183 repetition, 16, 22, 29, 45, 47, 48, 52–5,
musical time, see time 57–66, 69–72, 96, 99, 104, 106,
music video, 15, 18, 30–2, 46, 47, 133, 135, 140–1, 143, 148–51,
150, 180 157, 183, 189n
musique concrète, 7, 78, 79, 109, 155, Requiem for a Dream, 28, 30, 47–9, 55,
179, 183, 186n, 196n 61, 70, 137, 142, 147, 181
audiovisual musique concrète, Resnais, Alan, 22, 104
79, 179 rhythm, 4, 5, 6, 7, 15–16, 21, 27,
Mystery Train, 62, 104, 119, 121, 122 37–51, 52–72, 73–6, 79–87, 89–91,
100–1, 102, 117–18, 120–4,
Natural Born Killers, 31, 82 125–9, 131, 133–4, 139–43,
Night on Earth, 119, 121 146–51, 154–7, 184, 185, 186n,
Nolan, Christopher, 63, 104, 137 188n, 189n
affective rhythm, 131–5
October, 63 external rhythm, 48–50, 56, 80–1,
Once Upon a Time in America, 63, 140 90, 101, 127, 155, 156, 157
Ondaatje, Michael, 70, 80 film rhythm, 4, 7, 15, 37–43, 46, 49,
Only Lovers Left Alive, 28, 182 51, 80, 85, 100, 129
Optical Poem, An, 20 internal rhythm, 33, 48–51, 56, 80,
Opus 1, 2, 3, 4 (Lichtspiel), 20 81, 89, 124, 148, 149, 155, 157
musical rhythm, 5, 27, 37–8, 52
parametric narration, 22, 25, 68 rhythm of editing, 16, 21, 27, 38,
see also serialism 47, 154
Pärt, Arvo, 79, 99, 125 structural (macro) rhythm, 16, 52–4,
patterns, 41, 50, 52, 54, 55, 57–9, 56, 69, 121–4
62–67, 69–72, 102, 106, 136–141, Rickman, Gregg, 120, 136, 194n
149, 151, 152–4, 181 Ricoeur, Paul, 50, 97
editing patterns, 69–72 Robbe-Grillet, Alain, 22
musical patterns, 154 Rodley, Chris, 25, 108, 111
rhythmic patterns, 41, 50, 102, 106 Romanticism, 19, 96
structural patterns, 41, 52, Romantic, 14–15, 18–19, 49, 119,
see also musical patterning 177, 186n, 187n
Pegg, Simon, 181 Romeo + Juliet, 159
Index 217

Romney, Jonathan, 32, 192n Stojanović, Dušan, 42

Rosenbaum, Jonathan, 118, 119–20, Stone, Oliver, 31, 82
123, 124, 129, 132, 133 Storr, Anthony, 58, 66
Rose, Tricia, 58, 59, 143, 148, 189n Stranger than Paradise, 28, 117–19, 122,
Royal Tenenbaums, The, 31 123, 124, 125, 128, 132, 194n
Run Lola Run, 28, 104, 159 Stravinsky, Igor, 59
rupture, 110, 143, 148 stylistic highlighting, 159, 166,
Ruttman, Walter, 20 173, 176
Szaloky, Melinda, 120, 130
Sátántangó, 45, 78
Schaeffer, Pierre, 79 Takemitsu, Toru, 26
Schlegel, Friedrich, 19 Tarantino, Quentin, 26, 28, 32, 62, 89,
Schoenberg, Arnold, 59, 186n 104, 159, 178
Schopenhauer, Arthur, 19, 101, Tarkovsky, Andrei, 39, 44–5, 63, 94,
102, 175 100–1, 106, 108, 129, 188n
Schrader, Paul, 120, 192n Tarr, Béla, 44–5, 78–9, 99, 101, 192n
Schroeder, David, 187n
Tatroe, Sonia, 23
Scorsese, Martin, 3, 8, 32, 77, 81, 82
Tempest, The, 159
Scruton, Roger, 11
Tenney, James, 41, 54, 189n
serialism, 9, 21–2, 58–9, 68
Themès et variations, 20
see also parametric narration
Thompson, Kristine, 22, 46, 67, 82,
Sessions, Roger, 7–8, 69, 191n
95, 188n, 191n
Sexy Beast, 60, 190n
time, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10, 14, 16, 37, 39,
Shallis, Michael, 106, 193n
41, 42–5, 49– 50, 58, 59, 79–80,
Shaun of the Dead, 181
88–9, 93–113, 126, 127, 128–31,
Shaw-Miller, Simon, 180
135, 189n, 193n
Shklovsky, Viktor, 63, 72
chronometric time, 41, 49–50,
Short Cuts, 104
189n, see also metre; external
silence, 7, 17, 19, 23, 26, 33, 82, 91,
rhythm; aesthetics of the cut
95, 99, 124–6, 128, 130, 184
film time, 16, 43, 93–113
Sixth Part of the World, A, 63
integral time, 37, 41, 49–50, 189n,
‘slow cinema’, 44, 99, 192n
see also internal rhythm;
Small, Christopher, 58
aesthetics of the shot
Sorkin, Aaron, 6
linear time, 96–8, 112
sound design, 4, 5, 17, 25, 45, 80, 107,
multiple temporalities, 16,
111, 137, 140, 159, 182, 183,
102–5, 107
187n, 195n, 196n
sound effects, 4, 5, 7, 14, 23, 24, 25, musical time, 6, 58, 59, 95, 97, 112
26, 28, 47–8, 63, 82, 140–4, nonlinear time, 97–9
146–7, 155–7, 173, 183, 186n, Timecode, 27, 32
187n, 196n Touch of Evil, 77
soundtrack, 4, 7, 23, 25, 28, 63, 148, transsensorial perception, 40, 43
151, 155–7, 183, 187n, 196n Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, 110
Spaghetti Western, 25, 187n 21 grams, 104
Spider, 39 Tykwer, Tom, 28, 104, 159
Splet, Alan, 25, 107, 109
Spring Breakers, 28, 63, 183 Umwelt, 105–6, 112, 192n
Spun, 181 Under the Skin, 183
Stockhausen, Karlheinz, 104, 186n Upstream Color, 32, 183
218 Index

Van Sant, Gus, 32, 77–8, 99, 101, 183, Welles, Orson, 77
184, 191n Wenders, Wim, 86–8, 192n
Vernallis, Carol, 28, 30 Widgery, Claudia Joan, 42–3, 85, 188n
Vertov, Dziga, 63 Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über
Viola, Bill, 13 Berlin), 86–8
visual music, 18, 20 World’s End, The, 181
Vivre sa vie, 25, 27, 187n Wright, Joe, 17, 27, 158–7, 179, 183

Wachowski Brothers, 26, 39

Wagner, Richard, 19, 21, 96, 180, 187n Yared, Gabriel, 32
see also Gesamtkunstwerk Yimou, Zhang, 26, 89
Walker, Elsie, 29, 183
Webern, Anton, 58 Zuckerkandl, Victor, 5, 8, 9, 41, 75