Thursday, January 26, 2012

Oscar Season: Playing the Genuine Nostalgia


Yesterday the background to my unimportant daily activities was a full listen to each of the newly Oscar-nominated scores. It was not as vast a journey as I expected. It's been said, many times, both by better and by worse men than I, that this year's nominations are dominated by nostalgia. So it shouldn't really be a surprise, then, that all of the nominees here come from films set in the past - the most recent being the 1970s gloom of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, while the remaining four, at best, cover a mere thirty year period from 1910 to 1939. (Tintin's setting is debatable, but would certainly seem to exist pre-WWII because of the clothing and technology on display.) Not only that, the settings of the films restricts the geographical trip to the most Western corner of Western Europe - the dank Britishness of Tinker, Tailor, leaping the channel within War Horse, stuck inside a Parisian train station for Hugo, and scurrying around with a Belgian in The Adventures of Tintin. Even The Artist takes as many cues from its native France as from the classic compositions of Hollywood's Golden Age.

The limited scope of these nominees - leaving aside questions of their quality for the moment - makes a far more critical suggestion of the Academy's blinkered taste than their selection of the films in the Best Picture category would seem to. Across the whole of a film, say The Artist, both nostalgia and prescience can be encompassed, with the finale allowing George Valentin a passage into a future as joyful as his past. But when we take these scores on their own - not necessarily the right approach towards lauding them, but stick with me - they seem to work solely as nostalgia pieces. There isn't a lack of joy in that - try listening to a piece like 'George Valentin' from Ludovico Bource's score to The Artist and not grin at the images of Dujardin and Uggie's slapstick routine that pop into your head - but, as an overview of a category, these accomplishments demonstrate exactly what the Academy has feared becoming: irrelevant.


You're Here - Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Perhaps awarding Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross the prize for their pulsating electronic work on The Social Network sated their contemporary needs for a couple of years. (You certainly imagine the three hour work the same pair did for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo may have been just too long for even the most open-minded of voters, even if it is among the best of the year.) The problem is, Iglesias' insidious, evocative work aside, these scores are some of the most uninventive scores of the year, their supposed 'originality' tempered by the overwhelming number of cultural and historical reference points they embody, and, as such, they seem to reflect the laziest choices this branch could have made - and next to the widely criticised Original Song category (which this year offered up a paltry two nominees), the music branch isn't looking in the best of shapes. It seems to speak of an outdated conception of what film scores should 'be' - vast orchestral compositions with smooth traditional melodies. 2011 was a strong year for music at the movies, but, though these scores are not without their strengths, the Academy's selection seems to counter Wesley Britton's assertion that "original orchestral scores are no longer the norm".


The Chase - Howard Shore, Hugo


Howard Shore's work on Hugo lazily matches the film's contorted nostalgic impulses, shoving accordion and trumpet into many of the melodies without the winsome invention of Yann Tiersen's memorable score for Amelie. As it progresses, the mischievous, winsome string flurries become tiresomely repetitive. John Williams' The Adventures of Tintin isn't dissimilar, though its use of brass, harpsichord and looping woodwind provides a much wider palette of melodies, and Williams, ever the class act, has great fun weaving these into an appropriately lively and flourishing accompaniment to the film's mix of mystery and slapstick action. It certainly mines the jazzy milieu of its unspecified Belgian setting as much as Shore lazes in 1920s Paris, but Williams' music is lithe enough to have darted out of your critical grasp before you can moan.


The Adventures of Tintin - John Williams, The Adventures of Tintin


George Valentin - Ludovic Bource, The Artist

The Artist's score, by Ludovic Bource, is undoubtedly the most integral to its film's success - quickstepping its way in to compensate for the unfamiliar lack of diegetic sound - and its engaging, sprightly warmth is indeed so wrapped up with the images that a listen apart from the film is enormously evocative of the pleasure of my two viewings. Bource has said he took his inspiration from music across cinematic history - music that "everyone has inscribed in their memory". Kim Novak's accusations aside, there is enough wit, piquancy and love in Bource's original compositions that The Artist's nomination in this category seemed essential.


Bringing Joey Home, and Bonding - John Williams, War Horse

War Horse strikes me as the laziest of the nominations here, though its blooming, passionate twinning of the string section and light woodwind works in the same sort of fashion as the production design I discussed last week - it's so overwhelming and blatant in its emotionality that it hits its cues even as you realise you're being so baldly manipulated. But in that way, it feels as informed by classic Hollywood scores as The Artist does, and there's less wit and more seriousness in this one. Finally, while Alberto Iglesias' nomination for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy feels like the most unlikely nomination, its moody, insidious use of low brass and inconsistent piano melodies also betrays a nostalgia for the gloomy thrillers of the 1970s. Still, it strikes a dissonant note in this roster - one for the pessimists, if you will.


Guillam - Alberto Iglesias, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy


Nostalgia doesn't explain everything. Both Cliff Martinez's Drive and Hans Zimmer's Rango mine similar wells, the former with a menacing morbidity similar to Tinker, Tailor, while the latter matches the joyful invention of Tintin in its playful spin on Ennio Morricone's famous Western refrains. Dario Marianelli's lush, intricate score for Jane Eyre is whole other centuries ago, possibly an even finer distillation of 'classic film score' than the nominees, yet even it couldn't muscle into their narrow window.


Underground - Hans Zimmer, Rango


Waiting for Mr. Rochester - Dario Marianelli, Jane Eyre

And I've not even mentioned the more bracing modern scores like The Chemical Brothers' eerie accompaniment to Hanna, Nico Muhly's arresting strings for Margaret, or Basement Jaxx's punchy score for Attack the Block. Those seem a step too far, but the fact that their omission (not to mention that only Drive errs onto the idea of an "Adapted Song Score" that Joe Reid preached only today) isn't the complaint here demonstrates the alarmingly tight insularity of this year's choices. To quote someone the Academy did once nominate: wise up.

5 comments:

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

A nicely written article, as per normal but (potential rant ahead), you're not the first person to say it but I still don't fully comprehend the argument that the AMPAS - or award bodies generally - should try to "keep with it" by nominating current, progressive (in theory) or contemporary things to prove that they're not irrelevant. Granted, I am no fan of two of the entries here (but conversely, two of my favourites are here) and I don't care to actually try to enter the voter's consciousness. But, if it were me and I legitimately thought that five of the finest music work done this year was for films heavy on nostalgia I don't think I should feel the need to cite a contemporary piece to save face.

AND, it's so weird about The Artist. Generally, critics of AMPAS are up in arms for their alleged tendency to nominate artists for MOST of a particular technical achievement than the BEST of said achievement. And, yet, so many are citing the deservingness of The Artist to be hinged on it being difficult toe extrapolate from the film since it's played so continuously. Admittedly, that's not what you're saying, but I needed to get that off my chest.

Dave said...

Thank you!

I don't necessarily think that they should try to "keep with it" - I'd like it, obviously. But it seems more that they want to try doing so - at least the organisers of the Academy, if not the voting body as a whole, with all the changes to the voting systems. If these are the scores they liked best, fair play to them. But as I said in the article, it shows an incredibly blinkered view of what score composition is, and I think at any point in the last thirty years or so, if these were the choices, I'd have the same issues. In the crudest terms possible, it feels similar to the Foreign Language category before the recent changes to get more challenging titles included.

I see what you mean about The Artist, and that probably assured it a nomination, but I genuinely think the score itself, apart from the film, is enjoyable and fairly inventive with its melodies. I wouldn't nominate it myself, but it's worthy enough. That said, what you've identified may well secure it the win in this category.

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