This article contains narrative spoilers.

From its very earliest occurrences, electronic instrumentation and music has been used in cinema to signpost various aspects of mental health problems and issues within diegetic characters.  Alongside its uses in creating alien worlds, electronic instrumentation seems to, at least in the eyes of the films’ creators, have an ability to go deep within the human psyche as well as far out into space.  The overall idea seems to stem from a difference of origin between classical music and any other music; the overt, albeit contradictory, naturalism of classical instruments being too grounded in the natural harmony of life to really provide the aural anguish of mental illness in its various guises.  Something aesthetically manmade is required.

Perhaps even more ironically, the first handful of occurrences of electronic instrumentation happen around the time when Hollywood in particular had really defined its nondiegetic aural soundworlds through Romantically infused musicality.  The Romantic score had fully formed by the later 1930s and has lasted pretty predominantly ever since, even with new forms of music being invented and amalgamated into the cinematic score.  In the midst of this, however, came two films both released in 1945: Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend and Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound.  Both were scored by Austria-Hungarian composer, Miklós Rózsa, both featured forms of narrative mental illness and anguish, and both used electronic instrumentation alongside the classical traits of the typical Hollywood score.

In both cases, the early use of the Theremin, which had only just been invented twenty years earlier, defined their narratives and came to represent what could be described as differing mental attacks on the main characters.  In The Lost Weekend, Don Birnham (Ray Milland) is an alcoholic struggling to recover.  When he begins to crave a drink, the music often symbolises this form of addiction attack with the sound of the Theremin leading the orchestral score (which is adding to the tragedy through traditional nondiegetic methods).  Perhaps more puzzlingly, in Spellbound, John Ballantyne (Gregory Peck), is an amnesia patient who is accused of murder.  The Theremin here often signifies the battle between his own psyche and his memory as the former fights to regain the latter.  This is most evident in the film’s famous, Dali-designed dream sequence; the electronic vibrations of sound denoting the amnesia skewing his memory into surreal images.

Perhaps because of its overuse in the subsequent years, the electronic score largely became the object of genre pictures and B-Movies.  Think of the unbelievable sounds of Forbidden Planet (1956), created by (amongst others) Bebe and Louis Barron, or Bernard Herrmann’s Theremin-heavy score for The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951).  It was not until the early 1960s that electronic music would again find much to suggest in the area of mental illness and suffering.

In 1963, Clive Donner collaborated on a small scale film with the playwright, Harold Pinter.  Adapting his successful stage-drama, The Caretaker, they brought out the overt mental issues of the characters through an entirely electronic score composed by the Radiophonic Workshop.  In this case, it was specifically by Ron Grainer; a composer most famous for writing the theme music for Doctor Who.  The majority of the score, very much like the drama in the film, is a quiet ambience which unnerves and suggests far more than what is at first initially obvious.  The most telling scene occurs when the character of Aston (Robert Shaw) recounts to the tramp (Donald Pleasance) a time when he was taken to a mental institution and was the victim of some sort of mental procedure gone astray.

In the monologue, he insists again and again that “they weren’t suppose to do it to me standing up.”  It implies that he was given some form of shock therapy which instantly highlights a very natural connection to electronic music, if only through technological means.  At the climax of this monologue, the barely audible electronic hum of the score has built; the viewer can hear within Aston’s own memory the trauma of undergoing such a treatment, the hum of it suggesting that the character has to live with the consequences of it for the rest of his life.  This is mirrored by his own obsession with finishing the building of a shed outside.  Perhaps his determination to do so is actually in order to help distract the character from the hum that the viewer is only given a brief aural glimpse of.

The following year, Michelangelo Antonioni would make his first film in colour, Red Desert (1964).  Not only was this the director’s first film not to be in black and white, but the first of his films to use electronic scoring.  The electronic elements were composed by Vittorio Gelmentti, Red Desert being his first film score of mere handful.  The narrative concerns the wife of a factory owner, Guiliana (Monica Vitti), who is desperately trying to hide her mental illness from her distanced husband.  She is paranoid, neurotic, depressed and verging on almost hysterical attacks.  Antonioni makes subtle links between the pollution of the industry and the pollution of the mind but, essentially, the film soundtracks Guiliana’s breakdown through electronic means.

The character feels that she is no longer needed and is taken advantage of by a visiting businessman (Richard Harris).  The main aspect to highlight is that the music, like the environment and potentially the problems of the character, are explicitly manmade.  The character becomes more ill because she lives in a zone where she has no opportunity to be listened to or to seek help.  Past attempts at suicide haunt the character and such moments are highlighted, again through a similar method to The Caretaker, by the gradual humming of both diegetic technology and nondiegetic electronica.

The connection between mental issues and electronic music would become largely cliché after these films.  There were of course various and effective uses throughout the intervening years but the most interesting of recent times comes in the form of Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven (1993).  The film is a deeply provocative attempt to highlight the easy manipulation of audiences into becoming prejudice to the fate of characters with mental health issues.  Peter Winter (Peter Greene) is a schizophrenic who is attempting to run away with his daughter whom he has stolen from her adoptive family.  From the earliest moment, the film implies that the character has committed some grisly murder and that he is on the run for more reasons than he telling.

It is, however, a ruse but one of the ways in which Peter’s mental attacks are signposted is through an incredibly effective use of electronic noise.  His attacks and worries come in a variety of bleeps, hums, white noise and radio signals acting almost in a metadiegetic way.  Through the sound and music, Kerrigan convinces the viewer that he is mentally unstable in a dangerous way.  The reason why it is a good example to conclude upon is because the viewer can fall into the audio-visual trap of believing that he is a menace and, very much like modern society itself, demonises someone who is simply a victim of an illness and who is more deserving of sympathy and care than worry and scorn.

Adam Scovell

Red Desert screens at Liverpool Small Cinema on the 14th of May at 18:30.  More information here.

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2 thoughts on “Electronic Music And Mental Illness In Cinema.

  1. Great article. I have a further suggestion that supports your theory: check out the film “A New Leaf” (directed by Elaine May) which used the most terrifying electronic music to accompany Walter Matthau’s fantasies about murdering his wife.

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