Sunday, March 27, 2011

Music in Documentary - A study

When we study documentary films , one topic discussed quite frequently is the issue of subjective versus objective , and if the manipulation of images in the edit to enforce a certain viewpoint  helps or hinders our understanding of the subject  , and whether the ‘cinematic’ approach is always the best. One of the key areas of this debate is the use of music in documentary film ,and it is this area which I am going to discuss in my essay.

“Symbols rule the world ,not words or laws”

The use of music in documentary films is by no means a new practice , if we examine for example Robert Flaherty’s 1921 documentary ‘Nanook of the North’ we can already see the use of music to create a certain atmosphere and also, and this is crucial ,a heightened sense of drama . Music can signal the emotional level at which the audience should investigate what is being shown ( Rosenthal , Corner ,244) and Flaherty’s use of music highlights this, bringing to what could have been a staid piece of work if left silent, a sense of wonder and excitement and also , crucially again , a feeling of a piece of cinema as opposed to something colder and more voyeuristic. The music in ‘Nanook’ is key to Flaherty’s intended reading of the film , which is something more akin to a Disney film of the 1930’s than a  serious piece of journalism intended for say, the National Geographic Channel .

In their book ‘New Challenges for Documentary ‘ ,John Rosenthal and Alan Corner make the argument that music should never be used to ‘inject’ false emotion into proceedings . They also go on to state that the choice of music should “give access to the inner life of  a character or the subject” .  . If we take as an example the documentary film ‘Baraka’ directed by Ron Fricke, we can see the choice of music in certain scenes as denoting a certain mood, for example the pan pipe music playing  over shots of a monkey bathing in a hot spring suggests the animal in deep contemplation , even, one might argue ,anthropomorphising the animal by giving it an ‘inner life’ in the manner set out by Rosenthal and Corner . Later on in the film, a very different scene, one which comprises of match cuts between overhead aerial time lapse shots of busy industrial areas and images of mass industry in practice, for example scenes of baby chickens having their necks broken en masse in guillotines is cut in time to traditional African dance music, which lends the scenes a strange air of uniformity and naturalism . Later on still , scenes of oil wells aflame in Kuwait are set to an eerie bagpipe dirge , denoting death   and doom and communicating a sense of unease to the viewer.

‘Baraka’ as a film is traditionally described by critics as not having a narrative ,however , given the examples above , one could conclude that it does , albeit a loose and rather abstract one. It also could be argued that codes for watching silent depictions are relatively undeveloped in Western culture (Rosenthal ,Corner , 247) and therefore music is vital to keep viewer’s interest ,especially in the case of ‘Baraka’ which is not only dialogue and narrative fee but also features no additional information or context otherwise.

Music can also be used to enforce connotations of class and culture , for example a scene of a Dublin housing estate could be given Southern American connotations by having 1930’s Blues music playing in the background. Music as  tool of cultural denotation can be an invaluable asset to a documentary filmmaker. On example is the 2000  Marc Singer documentary Dark Days, which features as its subjects various homeless people living in the New York city underground train system. Singer’s choice of avant-garde DJ/ Beat-maker Dj Shadow to soundtrack the film is key to the film’s feel of urban  decay, and also fitting given that New York is synonymous with having a strong hip-hop and urban music scene. The music also adds atmosphere and at times, , adds an otherworldly feel to what we are seeing on screen ,and perhaps giving the film  a more cinematic feel than if it had been left without a soundtrack .

This is particularly clear in the opening sequence of ‘Dark Days’ , where , to the soundtrack of ‘Building Steam With  A Grain Of Salt’  we view a tracking shot through the tunnels which form the setting of the documentary and view the dirty and decayed shanty homes of the various homeless inhabitants of the tunnel  . The scene is remarkable In two ways , both related to the music employed :

1 . The beats of the music appear to match the movement of the dolly along the tracks .
2. The arrival of the music is quite sudden , and comes after a good two minutes of silence, along with an unseen narrator explaining why he frequents such surroundings  ,  and thus we are drawn into the world that he inhabits, and our reaction and surprise to the music ties us in emotionally with the world and the characters we meet .

All this , however objective or subjective an appraisal of the piece itself , gives us clues as to the dramatic intent of the author , Singer , and is also indicative of the power that documentary filmmakers wield in their choice of music to accompany their footage .

The cultural connotations of music are quite strong , and are a powerful tool for any editor of a documentary film .So for example if we see images of youths walking down a street or socializing and there is 1970’ punk rock playing in the background ,we are instantly aware as an audience of the connotations of youth and rebellion implied by this kind of music . As viewers of television and film as a medium , we are receptive to certain themes or ‘codes’ present  in  all forms of visual mediums , and documentary  is no exception to this .

In her article ‘Music, Video and the spectator ,Televison  'Ideology and dream'  , Marsh Kinder equates a lack of music with “a lack of imaginative thrill , symbolic impact or thematic dissonance in the representational practice itself to excite critical engagement” . If we apply this theory to documentary filmmaking , we begin to see how subjective the choice and placing of music can become .Take for example  Tony Montana and Mark Brian’s Smith ‘s 2003 film ‘Overnight,’ a rags to riches to rags again account of Troy Duffy, the director of the ‘Boondock Saints’ .We see frequent examples of the use of music to accentuate and sometimes create a certain mood in the film  , from the melancholic guitar and piano piece which accompanies the opening montage, with connotations of tragedy to come , to a key moment halfway through the film, where scenes and audio of Duffy, himself the subject of the film, playing  a furious blues piece on guitar  , is inter cut with scenes of a furious argument  between Duffy and his associates  . This blend of  frenetic cutting and the rising  , ever quickening pace of the guitar playing adds pace and purpose to what could have been quite a standard scene . This use of music to create a sense of pace and augment or even create a sense of narrative in what are true life events is a key technique used by more and more modern documentary filmmakers to create a sense of cohesion and pacing in their films .
However , there are schools of thought that argue that improper use of music can be harmful to  a documentary narrative, and above all should not inject false emotion ( Corner ,Rosenthal , 244) . With the rise in popularity of reality television and the so called ‘docusoaps’ ,  for example the MTV series’ Jersey Shore’ ,which features  real life characters and situations but heavily edited so that every episode contains a narrative similar to conventional soap operas , we can see the use of music to create a heightened emotional response in the viewer  . So for example , when something funny or unintentionally comedic occurs on screen or a certain figure is seen to be acting foolishly , then the music used will highlight this ,and be appropriately upbeat and jaunty. However  , if a subject is seen in a state of emotional distress, for example if they are crying, then we will most likely hear  sad melancholic music accompanying the scene. This type of coding is becoming more and more prevalent in factual and reality based programmes, and a fair number of documentaries , especially those commissioned for television , with notable proponents of this style of heavily coded ‘documentary’ television including Louis Theroux and Ross Kemp .

One of the key fundamental  issues to address when studying the use of music in documentary film is the issue of self-reflexivity  , and the impact the use of particular music has on self-reflexivity . In their book ‘ New Challenges For Documentary’  , Alan Rosenthal and John Corner state that a good documentary “stimulates discussion about it’s subject , not itself” . It is also stated that “ to be reflexive (in documentary film) is to structure a product in such a way that the audience assumes that the producer , the process of making and the product are a coherent whole” . This is one of the key challenges to a documentary filmmaker , to present a clear and focused argument while simultaneously creating an attractive product . Thus , the use of music in certain instances can enlighten us on a certain subject , while conversely the misuse of music , and also the over reliance on it as a narrative staple , can distance us from the subject or  the issue being discussed .

In conclusion , music can be seen as essential to the edit of a documentary film , but only when it’s usage is in context and appropriate . When used sparingly and  considerately as a tool to build an atmosphere , it can be devastatingly effective ( ‘Dark Days’) .However, when music is used for other ends, such as enforcing narrative or creating certain connotations , and also when music is over-used (’Ross Kemp On Gangs) , we see a shift away from a reasonable level of objectivity and into a world of pure subjectivity , and the creation of something akin to propaganda for the casual viewer . Therefore, it is the duty of Documentary Producers ,Directors and Editors to maintain a balance , and not fall into the trap of creating something that tantamount to a work of extremely realistic fiction  .


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