Understanding Sound Tracks Through Film Theory

Book review: Elsie Walker, Understanding Sound Tracks Through Film Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). 435pp.

Sinyard_Understanding Sound Tracks review_bookcover
This is a fabulous feat of film scholarship, both for the range of material it encompasses and the lucidity with which it handles complex ideas. The book is aimed primarily at undergraduate and postgraduate students of film; and, as a concise scholarly introduction to the thorny theoretical topics of Genre, Postcolonialism, Feminism, Psychoanalysis and Queer theory, it could hardly be bettered. The theory is then applied to a variety of film soundtracks, and familiar films are paired with less mainstream examples for purposes of analysis, comparison and contrast. In the process dazzling insights are offered into acknowledged classics such as The Searchers (1956) and Rebecca (1940) as well as less well known films such as Dead Man (1995) and Ten Canoes (2006). One of the most revelatory sections is devoted to Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010), where, through a closely argued commentary on the way in which the soundtrack reflects the hero’s difficulty in pulling things together, the chapter offers a convincing critical rehabilitation of a film that was widely derided and misunderstood on first release. A coda combines all these theoretical approaches in a brilliant reading of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013), which makes the film sound a lot more interesting to hear than I found it to watch.

A primary aim of the book is to challenge what has been called the “visual chauvinism” of much film analysis and give equal attention to a film’s soundtrack. This yields some remarkable and challenging interpretations. For example, there is a detailed account of the way Max Steiner’s score for John Ford’s The Searchers seems to run counter to the film, in the author’s words “obfuscating threat and emphasising reassurance” in a way that adds yet another layer of complication to what is already one of the most troubling masterpieces of the American cinema.1 (I would love to see a similarly forensic analysis carried out on Steiner’s equally contentious score for John Huston’s 1948 classic, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which Huston claimed he only first heard at the film’s premiere.) The soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man is then used as a compelling visual and aural contrast to the Ford film. There is a similarly engrossing comparison and contrast between Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) and Ten Canoes to show the different ways they voice the Aboriginal experience. The visual elements of Howard Hawks’s To Have and Have Not (1944) might seem to reinforce Laura Mulvey’s influential description of the dominant patriarchal discourse of classic Hollywood film, but the author argues that aurally things are more complex, with Lauren Bacall’s vocal performance (and, contrary to movie myth, it is her actual singing voice on the film) challenging and even countering the film’s ostensible reinforcement of gender inequality. Conversely, a more overtly feminist film, Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) “reveals some irresolvable mixed messages when it comes to the endurance of a female ‘voice’ in a patriarchal context.”2

Elsewhere the author demonstrates how David Raksin’s “consistently alarmist” score for Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life (1956) is “an important regulator of [the father’s] power, since no one in the film world itself is able to exert clear-cut control of him”;3 the way Rebecca and Mrs Danvers, and not Maxim, “hold the primary aural power” in Hitchcock’s Rebecca;4 and how Peter Dasent’s score in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994) assists in “helping us to understand the extreme and emotional multi-dimensionality of its subversive protagonists who were all-too-easily labelled monsters in their own time.”5 The implications of all these assertions are eloquently followed through. The result is to make you want to experience all these films afresh – and through new ears as well as new eyes.

Neil Sinyard

Two random afterthoughts, as stimulated by a couple of observations in the book:

1) In the chapter on Rebecca, the author notes that “in placing emphasis on the mesmerizing power of Mrs Danvers’s silent entrances in terms of her impression on us more than on ‘Fontaine’s’ experience, we are reading against the grain of what the auteur said. Though recognizing the significance of Hitchcock’s directorial role, we nevertheless explore meanings beyond the delimitations set out by him.”6 Although authorship is not one of the theoretical areas discussed in detail, the book cleverly intimates how consideration of the soundtrack inevitably complicates an auteurist approach to the cinema. John Ford’s legion of critical admirers often cite his method of cutting in the camera so as to minimise the possibility of editorial or studio interference with his footage, but that same control did not seem to extend to the soundtrack, which makes the discussion of Max Steiner’s score for The Searchers all the more intriguing and important (Ford grumbled about the score in his book-length interview with Peter Bogdanovich, saying “with that music they should have been Cossacks not Indians”). This issue of ultimate authorial control was surely partly behind Hitchcock’s legendary falling out with Hollywood’s most distinctive and original musical personality, Bernard Herrmann. To Hitchcock’s probable discomfort, Herrmann’s “voice” over the soundtrack was becoming too individual and insistent in its own right and competing for attention with Hitchcock’s, and you can’t have two auteurs in one film: not in a Hitchcock film, certainly.

2) In the chapter on The Piano, the author compares Michael Nyman’s score with Georges Delerue’s music for a roughly contemporaneous film, Steel Magnolias (1989), and writes: “the whimsicality, light textures and delicate timbres of the Delerue score seem innocuous and clichéd in comparison with the exuberant energy and stridency in Ada’s music as performed by [Holly] Hunter”.7 It is a curious comparison (the musical requirements of the two films are quite different) and also rather oddly expressed (Delerue’s “delicacy” is viewed negatively whereas Nyman’s “stridency” is seen as a virtue). Anyone who knows Delerue’s concert music as well as his film scores will readily appreciate that he would have been more than able to rise to the complexities of Campion’s film if he had been offered the assignment. Indeed, for me, it is a pity he was not, for I always find Delerue’s music infinitely more engaging, touching and beautiful than Michael Nyman’s, which, to my ears (and even when acknowledging its dramatic effectiveness in a film such as The Piano), invariably sounds like Philip Glass on an off day. But then: Benjamin Britten couldn’t stand Brahms; Andre Previn’s idea of musical torture would be having to sit through a Wagner opera; Leonard Rosenman described Maurice Jarre’s much-loved “Lara’s Theme” from Doctor Zhivago as “amateurish” and with “actual wrong notes” etc. etc. There’s no accounting for musical taste – even theoretically? Discuss.

  1. Elsie Walker, Understanding Sound Tracks Through Film Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 36. []
  2. Ibid, pp. 238-239. []
  3. Ibid., p. 285. []
  4. Ibid., p. 363. []
  5. Ibid., p. 388. []
  6. Ibid., p. 356. []
  7. Ibid., p. 216. []

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