Musical Emphasis on Visual Words (François Truffaut and Pier Paolo Pasolini)

The relationship between sound and vision in film is one that is complex and almost indefinable in a broad sense due to each director and composer treating such relationship in different ways.  The two examples about to be discussed are almost reverse images of each other’s effects; the same method has been applied but for different reasons and different results.  Much examination has taken place of visuals cues with sound but our visual cue of focus here are in themselves surreal.  Though both of the films require natural subtitles for the English viewer, the relationship between words appearing on the screen and the film’s sound world is one of the stranger examples to be found in this sort of audio-visual exploration.  Both of them break the structure of their diegetic reality, highlighting explicitly that what the viewer is experiencing is a fantasy.  However, while one does it for comedic effect, the other appears to happen for almost any number of reasons.

The first film to look at is François Truffaut’s Shoot the Pianist (1960).  This is a film that boasts some remarkable visual styles as well as musical cues, but one scene in particular grabs the attention for its utter aural madness.  The film is about a down-and-out pianist played by Charles Aznavour whose brother is being chased by gangsters.  While in the small club where he plays jazz piano, his brother gets chased by two thugs but manages to escape thanks to the pianist blocking their way with crates of drink.  With all of this causing a commotion, the main singer of the bar, quickly begins a song with the house band in order to distract the customers from the chaos happening in the back.  This isn’t, however, a normal rendition of the song “Framboise”.  As the words are sung by Boby Lapointe, they are mirrored visually on screen with French subtitles actually on the very print of the film.  The French audience do not need the words to understand and the words are sung clearly so why has Truffaut put them so clearly on screen?

It seems to be a humorous observation at the absurdity of the scene more than anything else.  Though there is an element of danger to the scenario, the scene is mostly humorous with Lapointe looking like he’s being put at gunpoint to sing.  Even Aznavour reappears a few bars into the song and casually starts playing along on the piano even though he has just put himself in danger by helping his brother.  The scene is surreal in the sense that the visuals actually highlight the sound and not the other way round as is common in more typical films.  There could be a number of reasons why Truffaut has done this.  It obviously highlights the lighter moments in the scene as well as emphasising the lyrics that are being sung, but it could also be read that it mimics and jokes about the need for subtitles for non-French speaking viewers; giving the French viewers a short taste of what having an image broken up by words feels like.  The fact that the lyrics bare little relation to the scene in question further backs this up.

Our second example is somewhat polar in comparison to Truffaut’s quite whimsical scene.  Pier Paolo Pasolini seems to be naturally oppositional to Truffaut; his films are sometimes aggressive, divisive satires that revel in the stupidity and the evil excess of the bourgeoisie.  His 1966 film, Hawks and Sparrows, is possibly his most tame effort but also one of the more relaxed of his philosophically heavy film.  Two men journey around a town passing judgement and comment on the state of its people and their situations.  They are joined by the cheeky presence of a talking crow which just about sets the tone for the film’s occasional leanings to the surreal.  However, it is not actually within the narrative itself that we find our point of interest.  Instead its opening titles showcase the opposite to Truffaut’s scene in terms of sound and words.

As the opening credits to Hawks and Sparrows begin, the viewer is introduced to the music of Ennio Morricone in his most typically overblown style.  As the names of the actors and the crew appear on screen, a singer sings their names and their roles as if they are lyrics within the music itself.  Unlike Truffaut’s scene, Pasolini’s titles are putting music to the visual words and bringing them to life rather than putting words to the music.

It may seem somewhat arrogent to have the director’s name passionately sung like in the hymn of a saint, yet Morricone’s music shows that this isn’t merely a film about a narrative to be lost in but is instead a philosophical essay to ponder and question in context of its author.  Like seeing the author’s name at the top of every page in a printed book, the music again highlights its role as a fiction but perhaps also encourages the viewer to pay a little more attention to what is about to be seen.  It also seems a natural technique for Morricone who is a composer that delights in powerful but often overblown musical techniques.  It seems to pre-empt his use of vocals in the films of Sergio Leone though the music here has a lot more thought put into its use rather than its more obvious musical qualities (especially in its other musical pieces that often uses popular guitar music as the backbone for the score).

In western film terms, the closest that has happened like this outside of the gaudy musical genre is in the James Bond series of films.  However, the lyrics often only highlight the name of the film and occasionally some of the narrative about to be shown rather than the words and names that are appearing in the on screen credits.  Hawks and Sparrows’ opening music is the equivalent of Adele’s Skyfall theme incorporating the words “Daniel Craig” and “Sam Mendes” into the lyrics.  This puts some perspective on one of the oddest creative choices in European Art House cinema of this period; where words become musical and music requires words.

Adam Scovell

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