Sounds of Cinema: The Conversation
Welcome to Sounds of Cinema, a feature in which I will discuss various film scores and soundtracks and the impact they have on the films for which they provide music. This is not intended merely as a catalogue of great film music, though hopefully along the way it will provide plenty of wonderful tunes to discover or rediscover. Beyond this, the intention is to offer a series of thoughts on the mysterious intermingling of sound and image that film offers. There is no overarching argument here, rather a series of separate thought projects, but perhaps these sketches will, in the end, offer something of a link between great movie scores of all varieties.
This week’s score: David Shire’s haunting, piano driven score for Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation.
We usually think of film scores as accompanying particular moments or characters from our favorite films. Think of the ominous drive of the Imperial March which accompanies Lord Vader across the galaxy, or the moment when Superman takes Lois for a flight (to use but two examples from John Williams). The best themes often get recycled through a film, whether to emphasize a character (as in the Imperial March) or merely for brand recognition (as in the interminably repeated main theme from the Harry Potter films).
This thematic approach, tying tunes to particular images, goes back to Wagner’s operas. Whatever you think of his actual music (my own attitude is best summed up by these words from Rossini: “Wagner has great moments but bad quarter hours.”) the idea of leitmotif is pretty ingenious. By providing the audience with an aural tag for characters, Wagner streamlined his logistically complex operas, building grand narratives that held together and made sense. No surprise then that this type of scoring works wonders for epic blockbusters in the Wagnerian tradition. The Lord of the Rings films use this style to hold the hands of viewers unexposed to the intricacies of Tolkien’s world, for example.
Rarely, though, does a film’s score go beyond identifying in its use of music. Sure, a tune might convey a certain feeling about a character, but it is usually one sided and used for emotional impact (Darth Vader = spooky, menacing). However sometimes a film comes along that seems intent on using its music for a much deeper purpose, as a tool for actual characterization. The Conversation, one such film, utilizes its spare score brilliantly to explore the life of Harry Caul, its central character.
It seems appropriate that a film obsessed with sound, with an audio surveillance expert as its protagonist, would craft its score so meticulously. David Shire’s main theme, for solo piano, is simple and pulsing. It contains jazz undertones – at points it even sounds reminiscent of ragtime – but it does not possess a Tin Pan Alley cheerfulness. Though the piece weaves its fast scales into a hypnotic tapestry, it still manages to teem with empty space. In these characteristics the piece mimics Harry Caul, an isolated, lonely man – technically proficient, but empty inside. A savant in the field of surveillance, Caul has not fared so well in his personal life. The closest thing he has to a friend is his work associate. He has a “relationship” with a woman, but refuses to share any personal details with her and monitors her actions. Caul’s essence – a complicated inner life shrouded by blank expressions and deliberate obscurity – comes across vividly thanks to Gene Hackman’s masterful performance, but also due to Shire’s score.
The genius of Shire’s score lies in its ability to convey a whole world in deceptively simple terms. Most of the scored music in the film consists of that lone piano running in circles, deliberating over snippets of that first theme like a man intent on sucking every last ounce of meat off a chicken wing. This creates a contemplative, isolated feel, but not one devoid of emotion. Caul carries himself with an air of wistfulness – it comes out in the course of the film that he feels haunted by events from his past – and he clearly wants to connect with others, but finds himself unable to do so. The music too hints at something beyond its surface, with occasional half-jumps to a warm, happy mood. Like Caul’s social efforts, though, these musical forays quickly crash back to reality, and the ponderous spinning continues.
In The Conversation, then, we do not have leitmotif, at least not it a traditional sense. The music does not merely introduce a character, or remind the audience of his or her existence. Neither is it a more abstract or thematic type of score. Instead it blends the styles to create music that brings together character and theme in exploratory ways. One scene in particular highlights this task. Harry Caul, deject after leaving his lover’s apartment, heads home on an empty city bus. There is no dialogue, no shots of Caul beating himself up or holding his head in his hands. He just sits there as the bus lights flicker on and off. The only insight we have into the moment comes from the score, which continues to alternately swirl and plod in accompaniment. Through some mysterious alchemy, the music explains the image: a man, heartbroken, yearning for better, but too methodical and set in his ways to change, and ultimately resigned to a life alone.