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~he impact of music on film.

MUSIC can enhance a movie and it can detract from its power. It can help build atmosphere and tension and it can undermine both character and action. It can be something to savour or something to forget. How often have you left a cinema saying 'well the film didn't amount to much but the score was memorable'? What is indisputable is that music plays an integral role in a film and for far too long its importance has been undervalued.

A great director like the late Sir David Lean used music as a trademark--his best films, Lawrence of Arabia, Brief Encounter, Great Expectations and Dr. Zhivago, were remembered as much for theft score as for their script, performances and camerawork. Music in each case helped set the theme, mood and tone of the film, creating both an emotional impact and a sense of time and place.

All too often at major international film festivals the role of music in films has been overlooked. How many prizes, for instance, at Cannes or Venice have been awarded to the best film score? Hardly any I can remember. Admittedly at the glitzy annual Hollywood Oscar ceremony the value of the musical contribution to a film is recognised -- but only in scant fashion, usually with a scattering of minor prizes that rarely bring recognition to the film or its composer.

However, this situation has now been redressed with the 18th Flanders International Film Festival, held recently in the charming Belgium city of Ghent, where a major part of this annual event focused on the Impact of Music on Film. The festival marked the seventh consecutive year that Ghent has organised a competition based on this theme. The competition was reserved for non-musical fiction films, as opposed to films dealing with music or owing their existence to music, which were brought together in other festival sections.

Why feature films you may ask? The reason is obvious: you cannot possibly compare a biographical film on Franz Schubert to a concert film of the Talking Heads or a documentary on the Guameri String Quartet to a fiction film in which music serves the dramatic structure of the story. Music is the reason why musical films exist and that is why they could not compete. Furthermore, production of musical films is, both from the point of view of quality and of quantity, so unequal that it is very difficult to set up a proper competition. In feature films music has a specific function: it serves the narrative, it can give the film a special dimension influencing the viewer's reception, his state of mind and his involvement. The music is a meaningful component in the concept of the film as a whole. Whether a film works with existing music or new compositions, whether this is classical music, jazz, folklore, rock, ethical or electronic music, or whether the music was composed for the film is not essential. Which music a director had chosen and why, and how he worked with it was what mattered.

For a good example of how an effective music score can enhance a film and give it extra edge you need look no further than Sean Penn's directorial film debut The Indian Runner. This could be described as a modem day Caine and Abel story set in a small American town circa 1968. In point of fact, the film is a precisely measured portrait of two brothers, one 'good' and the other 'bad' (although the first is lethargic and the latter full of passion, and nothing is quite so clear cut anyway). As the 'bad' brother returns from the Vietnam War and begins to fight against the limits of respectable society--including the values and emotional ties of his family -- the 'good' brother is faced with choosing ultimately between trying to save his brother or maintaining his own identity and keeping safe those dear to him. Being an actor, Penn's main thrust in his direction of the film is in getting true and moving performances from his fine cast--David Morse and Viggo Mortensen are particularly good as the brothers in question--but he pays equal attention to staging, pacing and structure, while the distinctive music score by Jack Nitzsche perfectly complements the drama without drowning it out. One which scores in all departments.

The colour and flamboyance of gypsy music gives Rajko Grlic's Charuga a strong atmospheric feel. This is a bold testament to the current chaos affecting the beleaguered lands of the Southern Slavs. Jovo Stanisavljevic Charuga returns from the Russian revolution to hunger and prison in his native Slavenia- the Slavenia that today finds itself in the grip of a bitter civil war. He escapes, joins a communist band of outlaws, assumes an enigmatic leadership and wreaks murder and havoc on all those who come across his path. The music here virtually symbolizes a sense of national identity and pride which had been lost under the yoke of an oppressive regime. Ivo Gregurevic gives a full blooded performance as the Yugoslavian Robin Hood of the title. In all then this is a serious political fable of our times disguised as an action movie which, although crude and violent at times, also manages to be funny and thought-provoking.

As the 'Impact of Music on Film' was the central theme of the festival, several special events were organised, the highlight of which was a concert by Michael Nyman, whose driving, incessant rhythms have so distinguished the works of Peter Greenaway, none more so than his latest, Prospero's Books. This intelligent, innovative and visually breathtaking film faithfully follows the plot, characters and text of the original, where Prospero, Duke of Milan, after twelve years of forced exile on a remote and magic island, plans a revenge and then a reconciliation with his enemies. With an advanced computer graphics technique, superimposed images and striking colour, the film avoids becoming too clever for its own good and, aided by a strong script, an impressive music score that propels the film along, and a memorable performance by that doyen of the British theatre, Sir John Gielgud, this emerges as a work of brilliant-originality that lingers in the mind for a long time afterwards.

The winning film was Lars Von Trier's evocative and haunting Europa. Set in Germany just after World War II, the film centres on Leopold Kessler (well played by Jean-Marc Barr), a young American who returns to his native Germany as a gesture of goodwill and takes a job as a sleeping-car conductor. Von Trier creates a nightmare world of guilt and suspicion as Kessler is drawn into the wealthy family that owns the railway system, in his love for Katharina, the boss's daughter. Despite its Nazi connections and involvement with the Werewolves, a group of terrorists bent on preventing German collaboration with the Allies, the family is needed by the American authorities to make the nation function. Reminiscent of the German Expressionist cinema of the 30s, with black and white photography, surreal injections of colour, disconcerting use of front projection, an hypnotic, chilling narration by Max Von Sydow and a suitably dramatic score by Joakim Holbek, this is one of the most original and striking works to emerge from the European cinema of the 1990s.

Truly a festival worth singing the praises of.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Contemporary Review Company Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Green, Laurence
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Apr 1, 1992
Words:1214
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