aesthetic terms from the days in which the musical accompaniment of a film consisted primarily of a pianist or organist sitting in the theater and taking cues on what to play by watching the silenced action on the screen. And yet, in other and probably more important ways, we have come no real distance at all, for music now (as it did since the very first movie) helps to determine the overall emotional impact of a film. This paper examines the film scores from two recent productions, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Iron Monkey."
Overall, the musical score for a film helps knit together all of the different technical elements of a film as well as all of the different thematic elements:
Picture and track, to a certain degree, have a composition of their own but when combined they form a new entity. Thus the track becomes not only a harmonious complement but an integral inseparable part of the picture as well. Picture and track are so closely fused together that each one functions through the other. There is no separation of I see in the image and I hear on the track. Instead, there is the I feel, I experience, through the grand total of picture and track combined. (Flinn p. 46)
Jack of All Trades and Master As Well
The musical score for a movie performs at least a half-score of dozen distinct roles. Each of those will be assessed here for both of the movie scores, the "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" score by composer Tan Dun and the score by James L. Venable Newman for "Iron Monkey."
The first function of the score is simply to connect the individual elements of the music (the motifs, themes, harmonies and colors to the non-musical elements of the film - to the characters, the events and places, the physical objects that make up the worlds of the characters and to the overall motifs and themes in the film. The score also serves to connect the viewer to the characters and to the visceral feeling of the viewing the film itself. Music draws both the audience and the characters into the moment of the action.
The "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" score is especially adept at this last function. The musical score helps to create an overall feel for the movie: The music calls to mind a specific era and a specific place with great effectiveness. One of the strengths of both the movie in general and of the score in particular is that it is able to be so evocative of a place that is not real.
It is, after all, relatively easy for a filmmaker with all of the tools of the modern cinema, to recreate and call to mind a particular moment in history - verisimilitude is difficult, but it can be achieved with care. However, it is a much more difficult task to create a feeling of unity and cohesion when the world that is being shot is the land of the imagination.
The music is not as visually beautiful as the movie - at least not to Western listeners - but it provides a sensory basis for the film, in the same way that the rocks on a shore are necessary to produce the beauty of water-spray and prismatic light:
If the score by Chinese-American composer Tan Dun does not immediately strike one as being particularly distinctive, it may simply be that it perfectly evokes exactly the sound one imagines for an epic scale historical Chinese romantic adventure. To Western ears this might be the archetypal Chinese film score, with all the characteristic devices of films such as The Last Emperor (ironically composed by the Japanese Ryuichi Sakamoto and American David Byrne) present and correct. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is elegant, majestic, spare, haunting, epic and somehow timeless, summoning vast landscapes and a world centuries gone by with what seems like consummate ease (http://www.musicweb.uk.net/film/2000/Nov00/crouching_tiger.html).
The "Iron Monkey" score, on the other hand, is less effective at connecting the audience to a particular time and place but generally more effective at connecting us to the main character of the film. This is not a criticism of either film, for "Iron Monkey" is less about a particular individual and more about an era while the reverse is true of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"(which is about the couple at the center of the story but also about their effacement as well). In each case the score reflects this focus.
In both films, the music acts as a sort of narrative, helping the viewer adjust to the ways in which time is sped up or slowed down by the director. The music tends to slow down in both films (but especially in "Iron Monkey") at psychologically key moments. We experience the way in which time itself seems to slow down during those moments in which an individual is called on to make key decisions because the music we hear makes us along with the characters on the screen.
Music and film are both capable of manipulating time: They can both speed up or slow down time in ways that are simultaneously obvious but also effective. This is something that plays (or plastic forms of expression such as paintings) either cannot do or cannot do convincingly, and both films take advantage of this fact. This is especially true of the flying scenes in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," but it is also true of less obvious scenes in this movie, for example scenes that explore the ways in which light falls over different surfaces.
Providing Transitions, Connections
In both films the score helps to provide transitions between parts of scenes as well as between different scenes. This is accomplished in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" by connections between color and timbre as well as harmony in music in adjoining scenes. In "Iron Monkey" it tends to be used in a somewhat more utilitarian and pedestrian way - underscoring action that we have already seen on the screen. Such underscoring does make the action more interesting, more developed, but it is still not a very sophisticated used of music.
One of the most common functions of a score is to parallel the action of the film, also known as underscoring. Instead of the composer taking the general route of composing a suite of music that would represent the mood of an entire scene, he/she would maintain a frame by frame musical match to the visuals. Not all current composers are well trained in music theory, so they take advantage of the fact that paralleling the visuals is a weak function in that musically, it gives the viewer what is already known by watching. Its only job is to tell a viewer what he already sees; development of commentary on the scene is unnecessary (http://www.filmscoremonthly.com/features/functions.asp).
In other words, the music serves an essentially mimetic function, mimicking what we see on the screen rather than creating an additional and at least slightly alternative vision that we can then blend with the ideas that are presented to us visually.
This overall cohesion that marks "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is not present in "Iron Monkey." It is not entirely clear if this is intentional or something that the director deemed to be a necessary sacrifice to allow the visual elements of the movie to shine out more strongly.
Miramax also has added a written prolog and epilog to Iron Monkey, along with newly translated subtitles, a new music score, and some other new soundtrack elements. Reportedly, these changes were made under the supervision of Yuen Wo Ping.
What makes Iron Monkey great isn't just that it is action-packed but that the action is choreographed, photographed and edited so well. There's a world of difference between the noisy, confused action sequences found in American movies like Swordfish and Don't Say a Word and the ritualistic, poetic, almost balletic duels of Iron Monkey (http://staging.gomemphis.com/mca/movie_reviews/article/0,1426,MCA_569_845469,00.html).
Both composers use the score to create a sense of unity and continuity. This is especially true in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" in which the harmonics of the music - both the score itself and the introduced musical elements - tend to blend together. There is in this score the same sense that one has when one looks at a watercolor - as if a single final wash of the brush had bound and connected everything together.
The one exception to this seamlessness is the introduction of an extremely jangling pop element:
Everything one could want from an intelligently crafted epic film score is here, except perhaps vast scale. Even the big action set-pieces have a restrained grandeur, in refreshing contrast to the over-the-top untrammelled bombast of many current Hollywood scores. The difference is taste, this being an eloquent score from a composer sufficiently confident to know that less can be more, yet also able to provide plenty of musical excitement in cues such as 'The Encounter' and 'Night Fight'. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is…