Friday Film (74)

If you think about it, those ‘Duel of the Anthems’ clips we looked at a few postings ago could generically be described as sequences in which two different (and equally prominent) pieces of music were heard simultaneously in the same depicted location; it’s in the very nature of things — dramatic things, anyhow! — that this sort of combination will be used to instantiate antagonism and confrontation … and that, of course, is precisely what we saw in the extracts from Casablanca and Zulu.

twoscenes.jpgNeedless (maybe) to say, once you have described the technique in such abstract, analytic terms, a ‘reciprocal’ or ‘other way round’ technique immediately suggests itself: one in which we have, not two pieces of music, but one, and not one location but two. Or, in other words, where a single piece of music is shared across two different (and equally significant) depicted locations — such that straightforward musical continuity is preserved as the visual presentation cuts between what might be thought of as two ‘rival’ pieces of action.

In those previous postings, I made a big deal of the fact that very few ‘Duel of the Anthems’ examples are known to me — so let me say right now that, as far as this present technique is concerned, the situation is pretty much the same: I know of three examples and two partial examples of what we might christen ‘Two Situations, One Accompaniment’  — and what we are to see in this posting is, for reasons that will become clear very soon, one of the ‘partial’ ones.

However, I don’t want to rush to present this first partial example; and the reason for this is that the stretch of music concerned includes an extract from a jolly famous piece that was composed and premiered in 1835 — and which the actual film really doesn’t present in a way that is properly comprehensible to those who don’t already know it.

So let me introduce every newcomer to this famous piece … by way of part of a concert performance, about which I won’t say anything just yet — not about the words or the scenario, and not even about the bizarre instrument that adds such a strange sound to the orchestral texture. Just take it in as sheer music this time, okay…?

All right. Having presented that, I’ll now provide a few words of explanation…

What every newbie has just heard for the first time is nothing less than the start of one of the most famous scenes in all nineteenth-century opera: it’s the so-called ‘mad scene’ from Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848).

At which point, of course, you will want to hear that music again — in its proper theatrical setting, and with the Italian text translated and shown in someone’s attempt at added subtitles. No, you don’t need any further explanation from me: as you’ll see (and hear, and read), everything that matters falls immediately into place — including the unearthly sound of a ‘glass harmonica’, whose use here to help signify and define a dislocated mental state is, for me, an amazingly inspired piece of operatic orchestration. I can never watch this scene without thinking how the original audiences must have been knocked sideways by it all. [Note: the instrument shown is considerably more rudimentary than the version with revolving bowls that Donizetti had in mind.]

Are you ready…?

Okay. Now, we are about to reach what I have categorised as a ‘partial’ example of our ‘Two Situations, One Accompaniment’ technique. And all I want to say by way of introduction here is that the movie is the science-fiction action film The Fifth Element (1997; dir. Luc Besson), which is mostly set in the 23rd century, and about which I have literally nothing constructive to say except so far as this single scene’s use of music is concerned. (The non-Donizetti part of the score is by Éric Serra [b. 1959], who is Luc Besson’s ‘house composer’ in pretty much the same way that John Williams is Steven Spielberg’s.)


Well, as you’ll have observed, they didn’t bother with the glass harmonica — which to me is a great pity: the use of flute timbre is a ‘practical’ substitution that goes all the way back to Donizetti’s time; but it really doesn’t cut it in terms of the ‘strangeness’ that is every bit as desirable in the film — as we watch a blue, multi-tentacled quasi-female alien walk onto a theatrical stage and begin to vocalise — as it is in the original opera itself.

And why do I call this only ‘a partial example’ of our ‘Two Situations, One Accompaniment’ technique? Well, no doubt you realised: the first of our two situations here is actually the performance of the music that is played over the second. There is no particular significance to the ‘appropriateness’ of a film’s music to any scene that shows that very music being produced; and you can hardly have ‘Two Situations, One Accompaniment’ if, in one of the situations, the music isn’t really ‘an accompaniment’

Does anyone have another  — better — example…?

If not, I’ll just have to go on and present my own…


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One thought on “Friday Film (74)

  1. A remarkable diegetic adaptation, which does indeed make some nice work of connecting visually disparate scenes! One facet that strikes me is how the two pieces of music differ in the weighting between the two situations: the Donizetti seems to focus on the diegesis situation, with the attack situation more of a background to my ears & eyes (maybe that is because the attack does not happen straight away…); the pop song, meanwhile, does not seem to seize so much attention for the diegesis situation, and seems to foreground the situation of the human character’s counterattack (by the way, I find it stretches credulity that, during the Donizetti, the aliens could not hear the human’s *breathing*, which is quite noisy at 2′33″–2′34″ of the clip, when she is hiding round a corner — are those aliens hard of hearing?).


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